‘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.
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”.