Are we really entitled to lecture Britain about remembering?
It is intellectually lazy to cast British history as a malign story of imperialism
President Michael D Higgins talks of the ‘uncomfortable interrogations’ he and the nation have gone through in understanding the forces that shaped Ireland. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Books about the British Empire are flooding shelves; debates about the propriety of tearing down monuments to slave owners erupted over the summer; in Ireland questions of how best to commemorate centenaries gather momentum. History is in vogue, so to speak.
We have even been granted new knowledge about the history of pestilence: How many of us knew before last year the death toll of the 1918 Spanish flu? Or how familiar were we with the plague that decimated the population of Athens in 430 BC, claiming the great statesman Pericles?
But as we interrogate the past with renewed vigour, our limitations are revealing themselves. History is wielded as a blunt instrument to criticise opponents and spin false narratives; to simplify rather than illuminate the past; and it is falsely sold as the key to unlocking all the ills of the present. In recent days, two examples tower above the rest.
In the UK the government is hosting a summit of 25 of the country’s largest heritage bodies, including the British Museum and the National Trust. The expressed aim is to defend British history against a “noisy minority of activists” trying to “do Britain down”. Of particular concern, it seems, is the National Trust’s Colonial Countryside project, which is investigating the colonial past of 11 of its properties. It will be reminded not to direct public money into “political” projects.
Enough ink has been spilled on how Brexit revealed a pervasive ignorance in the governing class towards its long and chequered history in Ireland
It is a unique approach to history: rather than leaving space for new interpretations of the past, it is deemed best to stick to an agreed narrative and prevent the oh-so-modern historians from corrupting the national story. That a central function of historians is to re-interpret, re-write and re-evaluate the past seems lost on this particular scheme.
In contrast, then, the latest musing of President Michael D Higgins in the Guardian might appear a welcome tonic. Reflecting on Anglo-Irish relations, the President talks of the “uncomfortable interrogations” he and the nation have gone through in understanding the forces that shaped Ireland. He explains the great openness to critique the ills of nationalism on the island. And he celebrates the project of “ethical remembering” we have embarked upon (whatever that means).
Meanwhile, he lambasts Britain for its “feigned amnesia” of imperialism; the academic and journalistic “disinclination” to critique empire; and the “reluctance in former imperial powers” to examine their impact on their former subjects.
Taking all of this together, Ireland seems a beacon of historical sensitivity in an otherwise myopic world. As well as a nation in possession of admirable self-awareness compared to the culture war-stoking empire celebrationists of the Conservative Party.
Not so fast. There is plenty of scope to criticise Britain’s inclination to whitewash its past. Enough ink has been spilled on how Brexit revealed a pervasive ignorance in the governing class towards its long and chequered history in Ireland. But it requires a unique level of arrogance to believe we are paragons of virtue in contrast; to believe that we are not in possession of our own “feigned amnesia”; and to believe we occupy a moral high ground thanks to a more nuanced understanding of the history of these two islands.
Approaching the past laden with moral judgment and superiority does not promote understanding; rather it entrenches prejudice and stokes division
As a starting point, it is intellectually lazy to cast the entirety of British history as a monolithic, purely malign tale of imperialism. In making this sweeping generalisation we seem to have forgotten that the empire’s role in Ireland came with its own contemporary and vocal critics. It is also wrong to say there is a wholesale reluctance to discuss Britain’s imperial history. The summer saw huge conversations about statues, how to commemorate complicated figures, and the need to acknowledge “bad” history rather than pretend it simply isn’t there. Britain is far from perfect, but these things remain true.
And our self-conception is lacking in places too, our inclination to stick to favourable narratives as potent as anywhere else. The intolerant “Brits out” narrative is a product of weaponising the past to justify modern prejudice. And the smash-and-grab style politics of the most ardent nationalists is evidence that we are capable of bulldozing over historical sensitivities for political ends too. This is no more patent than in those who still push the simple formula of 50 per cent plus one as a sufficiently compassionate route to reunifying the country.
President Higgins waxes lyrical about the importance of holding a “hospitality of narratives” – the notion that history is open to competing perspectives. But he is pushing a rather narrow one himself: we in Ireland have done the hard work, the so-called “ethical remembering”; now, Brits, it’s your turn. This is as erroneous and untactful as many of the accusations we are quick to level at the United Kingdom.
A tonally appropriate conversation about how to work through fractious history is important. But approaching the past laden with moral judgment and superiority does not promote understanding; rather it entrenches prejudice and stokes division.
But amid these debates, one lesson frequently goes unexamined. Thinking about shared history helps us understand one another – the more nuanced and empathetic the approach the better. But it is not, as the historian Dominic Sandbrook put it, a silver bullet. Knowledge of the past does not right its wrongs. To do that we have to make an effort to co-operate now, in spite of historical grievances.