Rewriting history is best left to historians

When confected rows invent a silly supposed problem, they obscure matters which are much more important

Members of The Marquis of Winchester Regiment muster at their campground before marching to re-enact an 1645 English Civil War battle, at Old Basing House near Basingstoke, south-east England. AFP
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Blackfriars Abbey in Gloucester is a glorious 13th-century religious site in the west of England. The priory for religious scholars was completed in 1239 and this month it’s been the base for Gloucester History Festival.

As I stared up at the great wooden roof beams, I was told by the organisers (with great pride) how one of England’s medieval kings ensured that long-lasting, high-quality timbers were – by royal instruction – used to construct the roof almost eight centuries ago. It’s the kind of detail that makes a visit so memorable.

Yet as I waited to talk to the Blackfriars audience about Britain’s past and what we can do to make a better future, I made the mistake. I checked my phone and became distracted. My timeline was filled with some of the very peculiar here-today-gone-tomorrow arguments, supposed scandals and conflicts on today’s social media.

One tweet from a “commentator” on an obscure TV channel complained that a BBC television history programme aimed at children was “rewriting history” because it suggested that people of colour were in Britain at least since Roman times. Of course, that suggestion is fact-based. The Roman Empire was – as empires tend to be – multiracial. It included people from Africa – Carthage, Nubia and elsewhere. But the stupidity of the post isn’t what irked me most. It was the accusation of “rewriting history”.

Here at the history festival, it’s obvious that “rewriting history” is exactly the job description of being a historian. It is what historians do. It is what historians are for. Imagine complaining that the trouble with farmers is that they grow crops, or that fishermen catch fish or that doctors practise medicine and you have an idea of how idiotic this kind of public commentary about rewriting history sounds.

I was distracted by the politics of distraction. When the world is full of complex problems – war, poverty, forced emigration, cataclysmic climate events and so on – instead of fixing, or trying to fix, intractable problems, it’s easier for some to turn their energies towards clickbait distractions such as whether African men were in Britain 2,000 years ago.

Imagine complaining that the trouble with farmers is that they grow crops

Another example in Britain this week also involved the BBC (where I worked happily for many years). It concerned one of our traditional cultural jewels, the “Promenade concerts”.

The “Proms” are held in the Royal Albert Hall and include the best of the world’s classical and other styles of music performed by a hugely talented diverse group of musicians and conductors. The Last Night of the Proms is the highlight, a grand finale of happiness.

This year, it included scenes of “promenaders” – those in the audience standing in the centre of the hall – joyously waving flags. So what? Well, alongside the British national flag there were many more prominent European flags, which set off much frothing from a few ardent Brexiters.

Personally, I don’t wave flags. I lived in Northern Ireland for long enough to know that waving flags can needlessly offend. Even so, reaction to the Proms flag waving was at times ludicrous. Members of right-wing political groupings complained that waving the European flag “spoils a celebration of the United Kingdom”. If a country of 68 million people can be “spoilt” by a bit of Saturday night fun, then maybe something more serious is wrong.

Of course, you could argue that social media is a safety valve. It allows some of the more peculiar members of society to complain about something not very important to an audience of those who are not very interested. In that sense it is harmless, merely a dog barking at the Moon.

But social media also allows a platform to those who wish to create discord where there is none. The intention of some of these complaints – as with the complaints about the children’s TV programme on race and the Roman Empire – is to act as a wedge to divide people. Worse, when such confected rows invent a silly supposed “problem”, they also obscure matters that are much more important and more difficult to address.

For example, there is a very serious matter about a British court ruling that the UK government’s policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda breaches the European Convention on Human Rights. What to do about asylum seekers is a truly formidable problem. But the politics of distraction means some politicians thunder that the answer is not to fix the asylum system (which is difficult) but to withdraw from the ECHR (which is crazy).

Prof Tom Hickman KC of University College London points out that withdrawal would also involve leaving the Council of Europe (which the UK helped found to protect democracy and human rights) and the European Court of Human Rights.

Looking up at these 700-year-old roof beams in Blackfriars in Gloucester inspired me to think that, maybe instead of evanescent social media distractions, we should think like the Tudor kings. They planned not for tomorrow’s headlines and distractions, but for the next dozen generations. The roof of Blackfriars still stands, magnificent, after centuries.

Published: September 20, 2023, 7:00 AM