Friday, January 26, 2007

Their history and ours

There is official history – and then there is real, living history, which is the outcome of struggles between competing, class interests which are often hidden from view or presented in a one-sided, distorted fashion. We should keep this in mind when looking at the government’s insistence that school students learn about "the shared British heritage" and core "British" values, which are said to include tolerance, respect, freedom of speech and justice. For example, what kind of history of empire will students get? Are students going to hear how colonial conquest in Africa, India, Asia and the Caribbean was driven on by the fact that capitalism is compelled to new acquire new markets and sources of cheap raw materials? Or how the British ruling class was eventually forced out by revolutionary, violent struggles which they resisted with military force? The history of empire is not a "shared heritage" but the story essentially of how rich and powerful elites shaped the world in their image, introducing the ideas of racial superiority into society along the way in order to justify imperial rule. As for freedom of speech and the right to vote, will students get the real history or just be told that is a "core value" that is, well, just British. Will they be informed that capitalism and democracy are actually not coincidental at all. In fact, capitalism evolved for almost a 100 years before ordinary people started to achieve the vote through the Second Reform Act of 1867. It had taken epic struggles, beginning with the Chartists in the 1830s to force the concession that allowed men in towns to vote. As for the way history enters distinct new eras, will students get to hear how the present capitalist society was born out of a bitter civil war between an absolute monarch and parliamentary forces, that resulted in the trial and execution of a king? Or will it be restricted, as usual, to a few words about the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 when a frightened Parliament invited a foreign monarch to invade the country to prevent the restoration of absolute monarchy by James II.

What should be clear is that the "core values" like freedom of speech and justice are not absolutes but are relative to the outcomes of ongoing social struggles. Trade unions, for example, until the 1980s enjoyed immunity from prosecution and had unconditional rights to strike. Mass demonstrations and a threat of a general strike prevented Labour from reducing these rights in the period 1964-1970. Now the unions have the most limited rights in Europe. Are students going to hear why the Tories abolished these rights and why the present government has refused to restore them? Justice and human rights are heavily circumscribed today as a result of the authoritarian state New Labour has constructed in the name of the "war on terror". Minorities and their religions are isolated and demonised by ministers and the media. Is this another example of a "core value" of tolerance that we should share? So when New Labour ministers talk of a "shared heritage" they are spinning history to suit their own purposes and those of the powerful in society. In the end, their values are not the same as those of ordinary people. They instinctively know that whatever rights people enjoy today are the results of the struggles of all the generations that have gone before – and that retaining and advancing them is a daily effort.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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