So, last Thursday the department for education (DfE) ordered schools in England ‘not to use resources from organisations which have expressed a desire to end capitalism’. This has prompted quite a strong reaction from many on the left (and not on the left) on the (quite reasonable) grounds that it appears to prevent teaching the history of the labour movement to English schoolchildren.
On Monday evening two commentators on Radio Four explained that while this was undoubtedly a part of a ‘culture war’ we shouldn’t get too hot under the collar about it. This was, one said, merely a Conservative government reacting to pressure from its base to ‘push back’ against the ‘creeping domination’ of societal debates by the hard left in Britain.
One speaker described such culture wars as an unwelcome import from the USA and trawling through the internet for references to the phenomenon I can see others dismissing our battles as ‘skirmishes‘ by comparison to those in the States.
So perhaps we can relax and see this as just another blunt and fairly incompetent side swipe by a cabinet office desperate to get us to ‘look over there’ rather than at the mess they are making of protecting our country and its people from the ravages of a global pandemic and an incoming economic depression.
I am guilty myself of getting pretty worked up about this at the weekend. I was caught between anger that the right wanted to suppress left wing views and history and bemusement that they thought it would be possible. After all if we are to tell the story of our history then surely we have to engage with all those difficult bits where people resisted oppression and fought for their rights?
Moreover given the availability of knowledge (on the internet and in books) it is very hard to stop young people finding stuff out for themselves. It is impossible to stop them asking questions!
And of course, and this wasn’t obvious to me (and others it seems) at first, but this new regulation doesn’t apply to the teaching of history. If it did then no, we couldn’t study large swathes of the past – from the Chartists to the Suffragettes to Tiananmen Square.
It is indicative though of a government that is weak and scared of losing control of the narrative. A religion that is confident in itself does not feel the need to attack other religions. Johnson’s government is trying to control the narrative to justify what many see as a coup d’etat – a power grab. We’ve seen this before in history and it is usually supported by propaganda and the control of news.
That invariably means controlling the way that history is written and understood so that only one version dominates – the version that government prescribes. I’m not sure yet that Johnson is intent on becoming Britain’s Mussolini – he is more of an Oswald Mosley to me (and certainly no Churchill) – but this sort of policy making is invidious and divisive. It has little chance of ‘uniting the country’ as he promised in July last year.
But regardless of what he intends it is very hard to police. Students tend to trust their teachers, or to listen to them at least. By telling people you ‘must not teach that’, ‘not study this’, ‘not read this book’ etc. I think you are likely to achieve just the opposite. For, as Johnson himself said, we are ‘a freedom-loving people’ that don’t take easily to following the rules.
Let’s prove him right folks.
Drew Gray, Head of Humanities, University of Northampton