openDemocracyUK: Opinion

The government’s obsession with ‘culture wars’ is a threat to democracy

By threatening museums, ministers are forcing a preferred view of history. This is a trait of authoritarian states

Sam Fowles
2 March 2021, 9.58am
Black Lives Matter protesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour
Ben Birchall/PA Wire/PA Images

‘Culture wars’ are rarely just about culture. The government’s recent obsession with the British Empire is about politics, not history. It is the latest episode in a long-running trend by which governments use the coercive power of the state to choke off dissent.

Last week the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, summoned of the leaders of cultural institutions to a ‘summit’, allegedly to warn them against ‘rewriting history’ by moving statues that celebrate imperialists and slavers. This is obviously problematic in a democracy, but it becomes much more concerning when seen in context.

The trend began almost a decade ago when Michael Gove, then education secretary, revised the national curriculum, mandating that the First World War be portrayed as a “just war” against “the ruthless social Darwinism of German elites”, effectively outlawing criticism of British leaders or policy.

In general, as Sathnam Sanghera points out in his book ‘Empireland’, British schoolchildren are generally not taught about the uncomfortable aspects of our history. The imperial massacres, imposed famines, concentration camps and other atrocities are almost completely absent from the curriculum.

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Which brings us to the current ‘war on woke’. Under the pretext of ‘defending our history’, the government is increasingly using the coercive power of the state to eliminate divergence from an approved version of Britain’s past.

The most recent crackdown was prompted by the National Trust’s research into links between its properties and the slave trade. This was a purely intellectual exercise. The National Trust was simply trying to find out more about its properties. Knowing more, rather than less, about the past is generally considered a positive approach to the study of history. Yet the trust, along with 24 other cultural institutions, including Historic England and the British Museum, was warned by ministers against “airbrushing history”.

Boris Johnson wrote about Africa: ‘The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore'

Just this week, ministers compared programmes to “decolonise” university curricula (which generally involve introducing more non-white writers and examining the uncomfortable aspects of colonialism) with Soviet Union-style censoring.

Responding to questions about whether our public spaces should be dominated by statues that celebrate imperialists and slavers, ministers claimed they are necessary to “understand our history” urging museums instead to “retain and explain”. This is a transparently dishonest position. Any rational individual can understand the difference between “understanding” and “celebration”. We seem able to understand the history of Nazi Germany perfectly well without a statue of Hitler in Trafalgar Square.

Indeed, when the Museum of Home, in east London, tried to 'retain and explain', moving a statue of the slave trader Robert Geffrye from a position of celebration in front of the building to an exhibit examining the slave trade, Dowden “leaned on” the museum to keep the statue where it was. He then wrote to all museums hinting darkly that, should they similarly misbehave, their funding would be cut.

The “retain and explain” slogan is intellectually dishonest. Most museums have more in their collection than they can display in public. Rotating exhibits is a standard aspect of museum management. By (in practice) banning rotation of items celebrating imperialists and slavers, the government is actually compelling museums to prioritise those items. The government is also giving itself new powers to force local authorities to celebrate empire’s leading figures and slavers.

Under housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s new planning proposals, ministers will be able to overrule local authorities that vote to remove statues or change street names (even though these decisions are taken by elected councillors).

A rose-tinted view of empire is nothing new amongst our political establishment. Boris Johnson wrote about Africa: “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.” Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote an entire book devoted, in one reviewer’s words, to “the kind of sentimental jingoism and empire-nostalgia currently afflicting our country”.

Politicians' cringeworthy literary endeavours are not, in themselves, problematic. The problem occurs when government uses the coercive power of the state to promote its preferred view of history. This is a trait of authoritarian states, not democracies.

All of this is often trivialised as a ‘culture war’. In reality, it’s entirely about politics. Our understanding of history influences how we vote. A key driver of support for the modern Conservative Party is the promise to return Britain to an imagined golden age. As the historian Alex von Tunzelmann observed in the Atlantic: “…it is hard to avoid the sense that embedded in Brexit is a form of ‘Make Britain great again.’”

If we start to believe that the golden days of empire were not so golden, we may be less willing to vote for those who promise a return. Similarly, stoking fears of immigration has often been a vote winner. It’s far more difficult to do this if too many of us understand the colonial roots of modern immigration. Finally, culture war helps stoke blind partisanship. It fuses our own identities, not so much to loving our own ‘side’, but rather to hating everyone else. Culture war partisans vote purely to beat the ‘enemy’, rendering rational political debate almost irrelevant. The Republican Party, in the United States, has used this tactic to great effect.

Anyone serious about preserving our democracy should take the government’s long-running, and increasingly autocratic, approach to history very seriously.

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