As we approach the end of another year I thought I’d reflect on what, if anything we might learn from the events of 2017. This has been (another) tumultuous annum with terrorism, the threat of nuclear war, and political turmoil at home and abroad. What I’d like to discuss though, is the value of History as a discipline and the dangers posed by the circulation of fake news and other forms of misinformation.
I’d like to start however, with something I heard on the radio last week. This was an interview aired on Radio Four’s PM show with Sebastian Balfour, historian and Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at LSE. In the course of Eddie Mair’s interview Professor Balfour explained that told his undergraduates that ‘history is about the future, politics is about the past’.
He suggests, a little tongue in cheek perhaps, that social sciences (like sociology, anthropology and political science) have largely based their studies on looking at the past, at past societies, which is then used a way of predicting the future. History, he argues, ‘warns as that the future is not predictable in any way’. The great events of the past are the result of the ‘coming together’ of so many unforeseeable and ‘totally unexpected processes’ and ‘individual decisions’.
I like his analysis because it seems to chime loudly in the modern world. Few political pundits predicted that Donald Trump could actually win the presidency because they weren’t looking in the right places for the clues. David Cameron’s attempt to solve a ‘little local difficulty’ in the Conservative Party gave millions of previously disenfranchised Britons the opportunity to stick it to the metropolitan elites and the European bureaucrats. Across the world we have seen the rise of the Far Right, of extremist religion and populism, all defying the rational logic of very well educated and very well-paid commentators and ‘experts’.
Indeed 2016 and 2017 have been synonymous with the marginalisation of the expert. The psephologists got it wrong in 2015 and 2017 and (mostly) in Brexit and indeed abroad. Guessing the results of elections had assumed the status of a science but recent events have relegated it back to being an art, akin to predicting the outcome of a horse race or even the effects of the planets on our love life.
Of course, there will be some reading this who will claim to know all of this was going to happen. I thought Trump would get in because I have a deep seated (and possibly unfair) low opinion of Americans. Hilary was poor candidate and a woman. Trump was white, sexist, offensive, and racist; a shoe-in in some parts of the USA.
None of what has happened was predictable however and Historians should know that. I think my study of the past (spent mostly it has to be said in the courtrooms of the 18th and 19th centuries) tells me a lot about how people interacted and what they valued and feared. This in turn reveals that while our Georgian or Victorian ancestors didn’t have television, the internet or mobile phones they shared very much more with ourselves than we often consider to be the case.
The people that turned up in the metropolitan police courts that I write about daily, as defendants, victims, police officers or witnesses, were largely just like you and I. They were generally trying to survive in a changing and sometimes scary world, where bad people did bad things, and good people tried to stop them. They had hopes and fears, and they loved and lost, laughed and cried.
The vast majority of people were significantly worse off than the small minority who owned most of the wealth. Society was deeply unequal just as it remains today. History helps me understand the present and its problems very well because it shows me that humanity has been exploiting each other for centuries. Prejudice and xenophobia – both rife in modern Britain – were present in the 1800s as well. Waves of immigrants (from Ireland and Eastern Europe in particular) were marginalised, caricatured, and discriminated against.
The poor were demonised because they were, well, poor basically. They were a burden on the parish (today it is the tax payer’s state) and their poverty and need seen as a personal failing. The only way to incentivise the poor men like Owen Chadwick believed, was to threaten them with the workhouse if they had the audacity to ask for help. Today the ‘benefit scrounger’ will only be ‘helped’ if we remove his benefits and force him to take any job, however menial.
However, if you want to incentivise a rich person you need to pay him more for doing exactly the same as he was doing before. This is capitalist logic.
Marx (Karl not Groucho) argued (and I paraphrase) that it is in the economic interest of the capitalist to pay his workers as little as possible, just enough, in fact, to keep them alive and productive.
I’m not a Marxist (no one is since the Berlin Wall came down – not even John MacDonald and Jeremy Corbyn, despite what the Daily Mail tells us). But I do think Marx’s explanation of the economic system he saw operating and developing in the nineteenth century is valid today. Even the growth of the ‘gig economy’ and zero-hour contracts is explained by Marx’s critique of capital.
Finally then I want to turn to the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and misinformation. None of this is new of course. This year the BBC unveiled a statue of George Orwell outside Broadcasting House in London. Orwell understood the value of propaganda and misinformation. He had lived through the Second World War and seen Hitler and Stalin’s propaganda machines in full flow, he even worked for one himself, the good old BBC. Orwell’s 1984 was a chilling vision of the future when it was published in 1948, it’s almost become a handbook for misleading the people today.
There is so much news now and so many ways to disseminate and receive it that it is becoming harder and harder for those that want to, to control it. More and more (as Boris Johnson’s trip to Moscow this week shows) it is becoming ‘weaponised’; a tool in the armoury of warring states and political activists. Isis use fake news, the Russian state uses fake news, the Far Right uses fake news, and now it has permeated ordinary daily life. The British press daily carry false news stories, just as the American press does. Donald Trump selects which bits of news he wants to believe or to ignore, the revelations about cabinet ministers and their extra-curricular activities are dismissed as inventions by the police, or held up as evidence of corruption and nepotism in high office.
So who are we to believe? Believe no one? Trust nobody?
That would make for a very scary world (if a world with Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump could get any scarier that is). I think we have to educate ourselves and our children so that we are equipped with the tools we need to make sense of what we are being told. The study of History as a discipline gives students the tools they need to unpick the words of tyrants and demagogues; to cut through the rhetoric of clever wordsmiths and orators; to work out who is telling us stuff and why they want us to believe it (as Hilary Mantel recently noted).
So if you have a son or daughter who is thinking of going to university to study a subject that will help them survive and prosper in the 21st Century send them to me and my team at the University of Northampton’s History department and I promise that they will get the chance to question the world around them, understand what they are being told, and learn the skills they need to make up their own minds about what the future might bring.
Merry Christmas and a Happy (if unpredictable) New Year 2018!
Drew Gray (Head of History, University of Northampton)
*other History departments are available.