Saturday, 5 June 2010

Niall Ferguson is called on to rewrite British History

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Only an old or political virgin would have been surprised by the current Conservative –Liberal government deciding to ask the ultra-right wing historian Niall Ferguson to re-write the National Curriculum for history in schools.

It is entirely in keeping with this right wing government that it should ask an apologist for imperialism to select his own brand of history to impose on unsuspecting pupils.

The national curriculum was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s was mainly to promote the 'Little Englander' school of history. A recent article carried in the Times that bemoaned the lack of celebration of the Glorious Revolution and encouraged a type of history that portrays British history as distinctly non-revolutionary and of a peaceful nature.

These two strands of thinking and that is being generous to call them that are complementary or more accurately two sides of the same coin. The impression you get with is a type of thinking is that British history is this peaceable and law abiding it is only John Foreigner that does revolution, experiences 'totalitarianism' and mad dictators such as Hitler and Stalin.

The sad thing is that a number leading politicians and historians believe this at least in public. Thatcher believed that Britain had enjoyed a 'thousand years of British democracy'.

These ideas are not restricted to the Tories, New Labour in power continued Britain's imperial tradition in Afghanistan and Iraq. Labour echoed a nostalgia for empire with Gordon Brown saying in 2004 'We should be proud . . . of the Empire, the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over'.

Niall Ferguson has said it time to get rid of what he calls 'junk history.' He has bemoaned that Pupils know too much about Martin Luther King but not enough about Martin Luther. But this comment is really a smokescreen behind which he seeks to establish proper ‘traditional history'.

This kind of history which sees only the history of the rich and famous attempts to defend the interest of the rich and famous. It is doubtful that the working masses and their history will get a look in.

It should be said that Ferguson’s rose tinted view of empire has come under attack one such historian Stephen Howe who described Ferguson’s 'world view' 'Some people – mostly poor and dark-skinned ones – need to recognise that they are conquered, accept the fact, indeed realise that it’s in their own best interests to be so. And other people, especially Americans, must know and accept that they are conquerors and imperialists, shoulder the accompanying burdens, understand that such a role benefits everyone. As Ferguson says in the introduction to Colossus (2004): "Unlike most of the previous writers who have remarked on this, I have no objection in principle to an American empire. Indeed, a part of my argument is that many regions of the world would benefit from a period of American rule."'

'The fact is that Ferguson systematically bypasses or blanks out every source which analyses or presents the perspectives of the colonised. There thus emerges a consistent pattern of distortion or one-sidedness: a pattern which tends to reinforce the prejudices of those he seeks to influence. Much of the impact Ferguson’s writing has had on public debate, especially in the US, stems from his being perceived as an expert historian whose arguments about policy are based on specialist knowledge. Ferguson is indeed a proficient historian with a great deal of accumulated learning at his disposal. But his authority does not extend to the histories of any part of the non-European world. When he makes claims about these, they must be evaluated as the arguments of a talented, opinionated amateur, not a scholar.'

Jerry Brotton, Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of London, said of Ferguson's appointment to rewrite the history curriculum was "an outrage" and his story of Western domination "a misrepresentation of history". Brotton said: "It's ideology. It is typical of him. It's another revision of empire – getting empire back in by the back door."

The British historian Niall Ferguson is perhaps is the most identifiable historian with the “right-wing, Eurocentric vision of western ascendancy”, Ferguson has been speaking at the Guardian Hay festival, said that children should be given the "big story" of the last 500 years and that story for him "is the rise of western domination of the world".

Ann Talbot wrote recently that “ All British historians, E.H. Carr once said, are Whigs, even the Tories—but not in Niall Ferguson’s case. He is a Tory formed in the Thatcherite mould, who cut his teeth writing for Conrad Black’s Daily Telegraph while he was a research student in Germany. He is also one of the most prolific historians working today. His most recent book Colossus, a study of American imperialism follows Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), The Cash Nexus: Money and Politics in Modern History 1700-2000 (2002), The House of Rothschild: Money’s Prophets, 1798-1848 (2003), The House of Rothschild, 1849-1998 (2002), The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (1999) and Virtual Histories: Alternative and Counterfactuals (1997). Every one of them is a thick doorstop of a book”.

It is little wonder that Michael Gove, the education secretary, has publicly praised Ferguson's "exciting and engaging" ideas for a "campaign for real history". He asked: "My question is, will Harvard let you spend more time in Britain to help us design a more exciting and engaging history curriculum?"

At the Hay festival, Ferguson was forced to defend his views when some members of the audience accused him of not being interested “in the fates of the oppressed”. This provoked an angry reply from Ferguson who railed at "the militant tendency" in the audience and said: "Can we get away from this right-wing-historian, apologist-for-empire crap?"

Ferguson’s stance has had some support from Martin Kettle writing in the Guardian. “This would be a grave mistake because a lot – not all – of what Ferguson says on this subject is less right wing than right. There is a lot of similarity between what he said this week and what the late Raphael Samuel, whom one would label a left-wing historian, wrote on the same subject about 20 years ago. Ferguson's argument, set out this week at the Guardian Hay Festival, is that history has been banalised and marginalised in the school curriculum and that both trends need to be reversed – which in fairness they are already beginning to be – if we are to educate the next generation better. The figures bear him out. But the core of his argument is not about numbers of GCSE or A-level candidates. It's the kind of history we teach and learn”.

He goes on to deny that Ferguson is a right-wing historian. “Even without such eloquence, similar warnings surely apply to a labelling in the Guardian this week of Professor Niall Ferguson as a right-wing historian. Ferguson may or may not be usefully described as right-wing. "Irritating" is his own word for that. But he is certainly a historian – author of some formidable books with an occasional weakness for arresting overstatement. Calling him a right-wing historian, though, seems about as relevant as describing Cézanne as an anti-Dreyfusard painter”.

One significance of Kettle’s article is that it articulates a trend in the Guardian of a cautious but noticeable supporting of certain policies of the new Con-Lib government and a defence of Britain’s interests both home and abroad.

In the next quote from Kettle we get to the nub of his complaint. “In the era of multicultural globalisation, this is a problem facing every country. National narratives – the bedrock of most school history teaching – are being eroded everywhere. Britain, though, has particular challenges of its own. Not only is there no overarching British narrative, as distinct from English, Scottish, Welsh and at least two sorts of Irish stories. English culture, in particular, is still disabled by unresolved class differences as well. History from above? History from below? Or a synthesis? And which one?

Kettle’s idea of a British narrative is the same as Ferguson’s i.e. a defence of British imperialism. This is made even clearer by his admission that British History is “disabled by unresolved class differences”.

Under conditions of social polarisation unprecedented in Britain's history is this so surprising. Kettle along with Ferguson wants no discussion on these questions in their history of Britain. Kettle is not alone in bemoaning the fact that historians have had to deal with the involvement of the working class in recent history. He bemoans the genre of ‘history from below’ which has grown up over the last 30 or so years.

Ann Talbot in her review of Colossus said “For most of the twentieth century, even right-wing historians have had to adapt themselves to the political and ideological consequences of the Russian Revolution—how the world’s first successful socialist revolution inspired millions in a belief that there was an alternative to imperialist brutality, a belief that survived even after the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union under Stalin. It was de rigueur to deplore the slaughter of the First World War, but now there is a generation of historians who are increasingly eager to revise the judgement of earlier researchers.

They can do so without doing obvious violence to evidence and principles of historical methodology. At a cursory glance, all the apparatus of a history book is present in The Pity of War. There are extracts from contemporary accounts by statesmen, generals and ordinary soldiers from all sides; there are statistics, economic, military and sociological; there are contemporary photographs showing scenes of carnage and men relaxing behind the lines. There are, of course, extensive footnotes. The immediate impression is of a book at once scholarly yet sensitive. On closer inspection, however, a very different book emerges. It is a carefully camouflaged glorification of war”.


Martin Kettle With no common culture, a common history is Thursday 3 June 2010

Ann Talbot What price an American empire? Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, Penguin Press, 2004, ISBN 0-713-99615-37 December 2004

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