Diarmaid Ferriter: Now is not the time to forget history

More than ever we must study the roads that lead to a dangerous level of political dysfunction

 US president Donald Trump and British prime minister Boris Johnson:   If we have learnt anything over the last three years it is that  contemporary crises demand a proper knowledge of the history of statecraft. Photograph:  Saul Loeb/AFP

US president Donald Trump and British prime minister Boris Johnson: If we have learnt anything over the last three years it is that contemporary crises demand a proper knowledge of the history of statecraft. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP

 

I moved in with David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill for a few days earlier this week in London. My visit to the parliamentary archives in Westminster coincided with the calm of Monday and the Supreme Court inspired storm of Tuesday. There was an unreal silence around on Monday; even the protester outside parliament with his Union Jack cap and placard declaring “No Deal: End EU Occupation: God Save Us” looked unanimated and weary.

The archivist inside was cheery and why wouldn’t he be? Being ensconced in the archives in the midst of a contemporary crisis can give you a reposeful sense of balance as you work in the presence of documentation that reminds you of bigger historic crises, political storms endured and the fleetingness of controversial turning points.

You also get a reminder of how seriously politicians a century ago took the business of politics and statecraft and roaming through the intensity of the personal and political correspondence of two political giants like Churchill and Lloyd-George underlines that emphatically. I was looking at how the two men responded to the bloody birth of the Irish Free State in 1922 and the parallel strife in the new Northern Ireland; Churchill was Secretary of State for the Colonies and Lloyd George prime minister and the internal and Anglo-Irish communications were suffused with a sense that the stakes were enormously high for both countries.

What is striking is the volume of correspondence from politicians and civil servants on both sides as they sought to calm troubled waters, pre-empt potential flashpoints and manage expectations and bottom lines. Boris Johnson should spend a few weeks in this archive; as pointed out by his hero Churchill in a letter to Lloyd George in September 1922 it is not enough for politicians to just “muddle through… I am very much against a policy of scuttle”. Churchill also wrote to WT Cosgrave as head of the Irish Provisional Government the same month to remind him “personal relationships between high authorities are very important” and essential for smooth Anglo-Irish relations.

History is being moved in to a vague, optional space, with no essential requirement for it to be studied in a properly systematic, thorough and textured way

It is an aspect of history that has perhaps lost some of its allure in recent decades. Writing during the summer in the Economist, Adrian Wooldridge argued that we need to hear and read a lot more of this kind of history because even as contemporary events have become more dramatic “the study of history has shrivelled” with the number reading the subject at British universities declining by one 10th in the past decade. Wooldridge maintains that the historical profession has “turned in on itself.

Historians spend their lives learning more and more about less and less” producing narrow PhDs and “increasingly devote themselves to subjects other than great matters of state: the history of the marginal rather than the powerful, the poor rather than the rich, everyday life rather than parliament. These fashions were a valuable corrective to an old school history that focused almost exclusively on the deeds of white men, particularly politicians. But they have gone too far”.

Junior Cert

The fear is that fostering a general sense of the history of Britain has been jettisoned in favour of a “mish mash of special subjects that don’t have much to hold them together, let alone provide a sense of broad historical development”. Wooldridge wants historians to escape from their “intellectual caves and start paying more attention to big subjects such as the history of politics, power and nation-states. The extraordinary times that we are living through demands nothing less”.

These sentiments are of great relevance to Ireland also, especially in a week where we learned that the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is recommending to the Minister for Education that history should not be restored as a core, compulsory Junior Certificate subject, insisting that schools who do not choose it as a core subject have the option of “short courses” that respond to the statements of learning underpinning the Junior Cert curriculum, including that “the student values local, national and international heritage, understands the importance of the relationship between past and current events and the forces that drive change”.

That is not remotely enough. History is being moved in to a vague, optional space, with no essential requirement for it to be studied in a properly systematic, thorough and textured way and the idea, as maintained by the NCCA, that the new curriculum will inspire a “reinvigoration” of the subject is not credible; what is more likely is that the subject will shrink in significance and whither in the shelter. Some students will experience substantial history courses; others will not.

Surely if we have learnt anything over the last three years it is that contemporary crises demand a proper knowledge of the history of statecraft, constitutional questions and the roads that lead to a dangerous level of political, economic and cultural dysfunction.

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