History tells us not to trust GCHQ’s Robert Hannigan

by Sam Fowles

When it reopened in March after a £40m revamp the Imperial War Museum was applauded for it’s “judicious choice of […] fascinating, and frequently heartbreaking, exhibits”. So when I visited last week I was looking forward to a nuanced and informative account of Britain’s conflicts since 1914. But I was disappointed. The exhibition, as a whole, often presented a one sided and, at times, inaccurate view of history.

The cards telling the stories of the individual tanks, planes and boats were, themselves, fascinating and informative. What was worrying was the story that the IWM wove around them. Displayed on giant notice boards putting exhibits in context, this was a peculiarly conservative account of history. The exhibit on the early years of the war told us that Britain increased arms production in the late 1930s, but not that the Chamberlain government delayed this despite the repeated warnings of the Labour opposition, military leaders and their own backbenchers. The exhibit on MI5 told us all about the targeting of Communists and Fascists (simple “villains” we can all identify) during the interwar years. But it omitted that the security services had also spied on Trade Unions and the Labour movement and masterminded the Zinoviev letter (a plot to ensure that Labour lost the 1924 general election by implicating them in an – imaginary – communist coup).

The exhibition captures the individual horrors and heroisms of war with aplomb but refuses to acknowledge that war itself is the result of the (often self interested) decisions of those in power.

Why is this important? Surely the notice boards are just there to provide a small amount of information, not to pursue a political agenda?

But it could not be more important. The way we understand our history defines the way we understand ourselves as a nation and our history is under threat. Michael Gove’s attempts to eliminate historical debate from the National Curriculum, use of the bully pulpit to condemn interpretations of history which the government doesn’t like and commemorations of the First World War which eschew analysis for incoherent national “mourning” all teach us to accept a sanitised view of “historical fact”. We should be questioning and debating. Control of history has always been an ambition of despots. It should not be the goal of democratic governments.

Charles De Gaulle rebuilt France after the Second World War with the help of the “resistance myth” – the idea that France as a nation had resisted Nazi occupation, conveniently forgetting the mass collaboration of the Vichy regime. De Gaulle’s willingness to ignore history helped him unite his country. But ultimately deep fissures in French society, based on race, fear and authoritarian leanings, were papered over rather than healed and still divide France today.

This is not just an argument of vague aphorisms. We can’t learn from the mistakes of the past if we allow them to be forgotten. The security services willingness to spy on and sabotage peaceful social movements that challenged the (Conservative) establishment in the 1920s and ’30s could not be more relevant. Last week the director of GCHQ (backed by the Prime Minister) demanded we sacrifice privacy and trust him to protect us from “terrorists”.

No one should hear that argument without remembering that “terrorists” has too often been synonymous with “people we don’t like”. In the name of “protecting us” the Metropolitan Police spied on peaceful environmentalists and those, like the Lawrences, who dared speak out against them in public. When they ask us to trust them we need history to remind us that the security services have never been trustworthy.

In an election year, when everyone claims to have the “national interest” at heart, we need history to remind us that politicians all too often see “the national interest” as synonymous with their own political gain. Just as Chamberlain and the appeasers avoided war to preserve their political and economic hegemony at home, Margaret Thatcher lied to the country about her intention to close mines so she could break the power of the Unions, George Osborne this week mailed us all a graph which obscures the fact that only 0.7% of the national budget goes on unemployment benefits. When politicians claim to act in the national interest we need history to tell us that our “national interest” may be very different from theirs.

The problem with all of this is that I’m probably just as biased as the IWM. The battle for control of history is an inherently political issue. That is why the IWM’s sin was not to present a partisan account but to only present one version. The reality is that there are multiple interpretations of history and all may be equally valid. The only truth in history (and public debate) is that we must question everything, particularly the dogma of those in authority. It is vital that we understand that the study of history is the study of an ongoing debate. Even if this means the IWM needs to buy some bigger notice boards.

Sam Fowles is a researcher in International Law and Politics at Queen Mary, University of London and the University if Sydney. He blogs for the Huffington Post and tweets at @SamFowles

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7 Responses to “History tells us not to trust GCHQ’s Robert Hannigan”

  1. John P Reid says:

    Does anyone care about the Zinoviev letter,no one cares bounty abouts handling of the economy 4 years ago,anymore than they care in 2010 that Cameron wrote the Tories, 2095 manifesto-it’s not racist to call asylum seekers bogus,
    Regarding the defenition of peaceful protesters, environmentalist,who dug up the dead body of a mother of someone who worked at a science
    Ab, experimenting i rats to find cance,for tried to ahit down a power plant giving electricity to a hospital, it’s a Known fact that the Lwrences campaign for justice for their son,had extremists group infultrate them,witness the nation of Islam try to infultrate the public inquiry,or the fact that rocks were thrown at the suspects(3 of who are still innocent under the law) as they left.

    3 times recently the guardian has had to apologise for printing incorrect stop ites about the police same as the Mail, in the last 15 years,there’s been 3 instances of the BBChaving to apologise to the police same as channel 4.


  2. Landless Peasant says:

    I would hope that schoolchildren will be taught about the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Peterloo Massacre, amongst other important historical events.

  3. Tafia says:

    History tells us also that you would have to be demented to trust a politician – but we still vote for them.

  4. Madasafish says:

    The reality is that there are multiple interpretations of history and all may be equally valid. “

    History teaches us that written reports are often skewed by the writer’s conscious or unconscious bias.

    History teaches us that verbal reports are lost after a generation.

    And history teaches us that winners of war tend to write history as they see it. And destroy written evidence to the contrary.

    History is often complex, badly recorded and shrouded in mystery when people deliberately fail to keep reports so as to ensure the enormity of what they are doing is not understood by future generations.

    As for multiple interpretations all being valid, I am sure Holocaust deniers will agree with that viewpoint.

  5. swatantra says:

    The Peoples Museum in Manchesyter is the best place to get an idea of the struggle of the ordibnary man against the entrenched wealthy of this Nation. Its a salutory reminder of how difficult it was to wrench a decent living from those that regarded bthe working class as no more than bonded labour or slaves, and still do.
    But its a bit unfair to say that the IWM has not improved. I went a couple of months ago and it was teeming with tourists and visitors from abroad; it was encouraging to see a few home grown Brits there as well. Like me, we don’t take the adbvantage of a Museum right on our doorstep. Its changed hugely for the bettter. And I was impressed by the Holocaust section, which every decent human being should visit, and take note of the graphic displays and exhibits.
    But most Museums are spolit by the ‘Gift Shops’ which fleece the visitors off their money. So when you leave, you leave with a detached view of what you’ve just seen.

  6. Mike Stallard says:

    I do some History teaching.
    What is actually on offer in the classroom under all the fluff seems to be Henry VIII and his wives, then the trenches (Oooooer!), then Adolf Hitler (Eeeeergh!) and Anne Frank, topped off by The Reverend Martin Luther King, the Great Nelson Mandela and Civil Rights.
    The Anglo Saxons (racism?)
    The Reformation (religion)
    The British Empire (very racist and imperialist)
    The Agricultural and Industrial revolutions (boring for girls)
    The eighteenth Century (toffs in silly clothes speaking hard-to read English).

  7. swatantra says:

    Mike Stallard makes an important point.
    But even within that narrow constraint of the prescribed NC you could still expand and discuss:
    Anglo Saxons …. Tribal Peoples coming together as One Nation
    Reformation….. Religious Wars between Catholics and protestants, that split Europe and brought carnage; Monarchs and Tyrants
    British Empire …. Racism Imperialism Capitalism
    Agricultural and Industrial Revolution How Science liberated the working man and woman and the expansion of democracy and Liberty and HR
    C18 …. The Enlightement the rebirth of thought and individualism and meritocracy
    The trouble inschools today is that its all prescribed and the individual teacher hasn’t much say but doeswhat s/he is told.

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