Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984 declaims ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’ Knowledge of history is almost invariably a good thing, as two things can come from such knowledge; first is that collectively as a society we seek to rectify our previous mistakes, and secondly we try to have an idea of the future.

Given the above, how should one view the recent string of controversies that appear to focus around the subject of history? The first is the unfortunate tweeting decision of Liverpool Labour students to tweet ‘a tongue in cheek’ 369 anniversary celebration of the killing of Charles the I. Unfortunately, the phrasing of the tweet lead one to the ‘tongue in cheek’ conclusion that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who happens to be 91, should also be killed. Hence, there was a subsequent apology, and deleting of the aforementioned tweet. Nevertheless, the fairest thing that can be said regarding this is that it’s in poor taste. One is free to hold republicanism as a political philosophy in the United Kingdom, but murder of a 91 year old may not be seen by the civilised world as a legitimate political act.

Second, is the branding of a Churchill themed café which had its mural of the wartime leader vandalised with the phrase ‘imperialist scum’. Unfortunately, this particular café has a twin which is named Blighty café, and features a neon portrait of Ghandi. Despite the proprietors of these two cafes arguing the following: “We are just an independent cafe chain put together by people who work hard to make it happen and people seem to want to bring politics into it to try and drag us down. All we are doing is celebrating a true British hero in Churchill and the ties between Britain and Commonwealth countries.” The protestors argued the following, “While Blighty does make a point of sourcing its coffee from countries in the Commonwealth, we feel its framing of the Commonwealth is an outdated concept using its history in a light-hearted ‘fancy-dress’ manner. We would like to step in now and ask them to adjust their brand whilst there’s still only two branches.” The mural has now been removed.

The aforementioned controversy happened to be debated on a panel show which featured Maajid Nawaz and Afua Hirsch. Hirsch was on the side of the protestors’ argument, and she made the following comment in reference to the view that Churchill is part of celebrating the history of these British islands: ‘You’re telling me you don’t want to acknowledge that we basically helped design and perpetrate the slave trade for 400 years, that we colonised the world on a white supremacist ideology . . . that we should look at people in a wide context’. It is this line of thinking that she has applied to calls for Nelson’s column to be toppled as he is ‘what you would call now, without hesitation, a white supremacist’.

How should one view this controversy? Ultimately, it is a monumental failure to live up to the conclusion of the purported argument. Those figures of history without a morally perfect record by modern standards should have the ‘celebratory’ parts of their history removed. Why single out one figure? Judging by modern standards, I do not think there would be any statues/celebrations for any notable figure of the past.

In a separate interview Hirsch was challenged about Nelson Mandela’s statue being torn down in the context of a debate on Nelson’s column. Hirsh argued that a statue of Mandela shouldn’t be torn down despite issues surrounding the African National Congress’s (ANC) acts of political violence. The reason being that he was engaged in an apartheid struggle, and ‘for me that’s a battle worth fighting’. Furthermore, when challenged about the possibility of this being about race Hirsch replies: ‘this isn’t about if you are white your statue should come down, and if you are black your statue should remain’. I think she may miss the irony of saying this debate is not about race, whilst at the same time making repeated references to white supremacist ideology.

It is important to refute Hirsch’s points. To say Britain designed and perpetrated the slave trade is ignorant of slavery being prevalent throughout history. It is also ignorant of the efforts of Britain to abolish the slave trade. Also, in relation to the colonizing the world on a white supremacist ideology, I wonder if that includes well known white colonizer Attila the Hun. On the point of keeping Nelson Mandela’s statue up, it seems to ignore the ANC’s acts of violence which run counter to similar sentiments on questions of violence for worthwhile [1].

Debate is a good thing. That is incontrovertible. That being said, I don’t think fans of the monarchy will storm a Liverpool labour meeting, and demand an allegiance to the Queen. Similarly, Mandela’s statue is yet to face calls for its toppling. The same is not said for the owners of the Blighty café, or the really British store, or the noting of a historical battle day on a tube notice board. This aspect of history is feared. It shouldn’t be celebrated. That’s all well, and good. At least be consistent. The following thought ought to be heeded: ‘if you are against something on principle, then you are against it everywhere’[2].

 

 

[1] Albert Camus’ remarks on the FLN’s practice of putting bombs on trains during the Algerian War: “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice,” http://www.full-stop.net/2013/08/15/reviews/michael-schapira/algerian-chronicles-albert-camus/

 

[2] Quote from Peter Hitchens talk on perception of Russia in the West, Cambridge University Russian Society https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFr1AxwTZNo