The Past Sure is Tense

October 6, 2010

This week, the Tories have decided to stage their party conference in the 1900s. The most striking aspect of their presentation (and, presumably, thinking) is how old-fashioned and nostalgic it is and, conversely, how it excludes aspects of the modern world which challenge every single “idea” that they are vomiting into the public sphere.

Michael Gove, for example, wants “narrative British history” to be centre-stage in the classroom (and is bringing in narrator-in-chief Simon Schama to add weight to this dubious enterprise). And he doesn’t just want to take history back to the Edwardian era, where British history was conceived almost universally as an ascent to the heights of liberalism and empire. Gove also wants “to ensure that the poetry of Pope and Shelley, the satire of Swift and the novels of Dickens and Hardy are at the heart of classroom teaching.”

As he told the conference, “Our literature is the best in the world – it is every child’s birthright, and we should be proud to teach it in every school.”

Has he read any British literature in the past few years? Maybe he thinks that Stieg Larsson is from Blackburn. Suggesting that British literature is the best in the world by referring at best to a novelist whose best work was over a century ago, is a remarkable claim. While there have certainly been some wonderful British writers around since then (though apparently not in Gove’s world), I suspect the verdict of history will record similarly glorious literary contributions from elsewhere in the world.

Does Gove want children to ignore Dostoyevsky, Homer, Cervantes, Hugo, Melville, Conrad (or is he “British” enough?) etc….?

Ironically, when I was studying for A-Level English Literature, we read, and re-read L.P. Hartley’s wonderful novel of Edwardian social uncertainty and historical decay the Go-Between, which was prefaced with the monumentally cliched, yet still evocative opening, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” That sense of difference, of how strange the past is, and how particular the work of Dickens, Hardy et al is, seems to be far from the designs of the Tory Education Minister, who seeks to bundle them up into a kind of composite “Britishness” – celebrating their whiggish brilliance as a storehouse of national pride and supremacism.

Dickens and Shelley (!) would have been appalled. Pope, amused, I suspect, and Hardy – bemused. As for children of today, it’s deeply saddening to see the government considering constricting their literary horizons in such a way. Enforcing nationalism in literature – for purely political and ideological reasons – is a crime against the imagination of the young, who are likely to be as enthused by Kafka or Joyce than by Pope. And there is the lingering suspicion that beneath the national agenda (horrific enough in itself) lies a desire to exclude the difficult and the “other” – black literature and post-colonial writing, debauched and salacious works, modernism and radical writing (though the Mask of Anarchy would make for a great lesson or two).

What would Shelley, a man who wrote of the British soldiers at Peterloo that “the little children, who / Round his feet played to and fro, / Thinking every tear a gem, / Had their brains knocked out by them” make of this?

Knocking the brains out of children seems to be very much on the agenda. This applies equally to history, where Schama will be advising. As Gove puts it, “One of the under-appreciated tragedies of our time has been the sundering of our society from its past.” As he told the Tory congregation this week, “Children are growing up ignorant of one of the most inspiring stories I know – the history of our United Kingdom,” adding that while “Our history has moments of pride and shame…unless we fully understand the struggles of the past we will not properly value the liberties of the present.”

Schama will be “advising” while the neo-imperial historian Niall Ferguson will apparently be redesigning the history curriculum. This sets up an interesting dynamic. For Schama, a redesigned history curriculum would feature a “renewed sense of our common story” but “one full of contention, not self-congratulation.” But speaking at the Hay Festival earlier this year, Ferguson suggested that the “big story” of the past 500 years of history (and global history at that) was “the rise of western domination of the world.” Contradicting Schama’s focus on contention, Ferguson responded to one sceptical audience member by fuming “Can we get away from this rightwing-historian, apologist-for-empire crap?”

He doesn’t see any problems with celebrating the means by which European nations rose in power, which included slavery, genocide, constant warfare and the technological fetishisation of military power and the development of industrial capitalism. This places him, and his admirer Gove, deep within the Edwardian mainstream. The history that they gesture at is deeply impoverished – presumably excluding the many currents of radical opposition to capitalism and imperialism (both in Britain and elsewhere), the centuries long history of black Britain and by implication the very discipline of social and cultural history.

At the time that Ferguson appeared with Gove at Hay, Schama himself made an interesting comment. As he told the Guardian, “I had rather hoped to get there first, actually. May the project prosper. Though there may be a case for having more than a single enlightened dictator.” With a galaxy of historians working on British and imperial history, many of them to the Left of Ferguson and Schama, this is a pretty outrageous statement.

But, as Seamus Milne wrote in June, the whole project is pretty outrageous (calling it “be a doomed and perverted attempt to create a sense of national identity out of a historical inheritance that should be utterly rejected”). For Milne, there are resonances between the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the prospect of future wars, which share their ideological justifications with Britain’s imperial wars. This is not a purely academic exercise. Far from it.

Nostalgia is dangerous. Behind the yearning for a restoration of past glories and certainties (imagined or real) lies the desire to control, to roll-back freedoms such as the freedom from entanglement in imperial conflicts and freedom from racism.

This extends to social policy, where David Cameron is to invoke a deeply nostalgic vision of “fairness” in his speech today. Echoing liberal reformers of the Edwardian era, he is to say that “fairness means giving money to help the poorest in society. People who are sick, who are vulnerable, who are elderly.” And he will be channeling the nostalgic vision of the British “small business-person” calling them “wealth creators.” Without any commitment to forcing the issue, he will call upon the banks, saying that “Now it’s time for you to repay the favour and start lending to Britain’s small businesses again” – the favor being a massive taxpayer subsidy to cover their monumental incompetence.

What is being evoked here? It is the era of the independent small businessman (note the institution of tax breaks for families…) who is thought to despise the parasites who hold back his social improvement. As Cameron is to whinge, “Taking more money from the man who goes out to work long hours each day so the family next door can go on living a life on benefits without working – is that fair?”

This is an astonishing act of erasure – striking out the immense power that corporate capital (and in particular the financial sector) holds over individuals and families, and the role that globalisation plays in increasing precarity amongst the working (and non-working) poor. Sure, the banks are invoked, but only as godheads to be prayed to for assistance, not as social actors, with immense – taxable – wealth. High Net Worth Individuals, meanwhile, are utterly absent. In Cameron’s world, it is the middling, the poor and the destitute who battle for resources.

It has been suggested that such a stance marks a return to the era of the “deserving poor” – which is true enough, but does not go far enough. Cameron does not seek a return to the Poor Law, with its workhouses. No, he won’t even go so far as to provide a stinking, oppressive virtual prison for the capable unemployed to work their way into respectability.  Instead, he mimics the Blair-era language of opportunity, claiming to be “acting to build a more entrepreneurial economy” but any actual investments in job creation are to be derisory.

Some of this is a direct continuation of Blairism. Some, such as the re-engineering of the history curriculum, is not. What it signifies to me, is a period of crisis and conflict, in which capital is to be relied upon to generate employment, while showing few signs of being capable of doing so, and the poor are to be the subject of new classificatory schemes designed to divide and discipline them. These are the policies of a right-wing ruling class, not Tory, not Labour, but in control, and precariously so. They are incapable of providing the resources to truly generate social cohesion and national renewal, and are in flight from reality. Or, to put it more cynically, they recognise the problems at hand, and seek to force their subjects into a flight from reality, but I prefer to see them as personally sincere in their nostalgic assault on the welfare state, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism.

Sooner or later, when they try to put these schemes into action, the present will intrude, but the form of that intervention depends upon us. There is no great organised resistance, pouring out alternative visions of the present and the future, to force the pace of modernity. Milne suggests that Tory atavism is “doomed” – but not before it can wreak a great deal of damage on the education system and the welfare state.


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