Without history, democracy is dumb…

The discussion of history and its importance continues apace here in UK-land.  And the latest journalist/historian to enter the lists is none other than Simon Jenkins. 

Of course, much of the interest and outrage over the issue stems from the last government’s proposal to wholly abandon the teaching of history as a subject, and instead combine it with geography, and call the hybrid morass, humanities.  And whilst this act of intellectual philistinism never came to pass–thank heavens!–there are still weekly reports that history teaching is often and usually sacrificed by teachers in primary schools who find the curriculum already too full–so they just don’t teach it, or they teach it no more than an hour per week…

(Draw your own conclusions on how effective this is…And you in the back, those high-pitched “whats?” you’ve been uttering with ever increasing frequency can only be heard by the dog.)

Now, where was I?  Oh, yes.  Simon Jenkins’s articulate and well-presented rant, which is also an advert for his new book on the subject of English history. 

Behold his gambit:  “Damn the national curriculum.  First teach history.  It is the king of subjects, with geography as its consort, yet the Government treats them both as “options”. They infuse all other subjects with an awareness of the outside world, in time and place.  No one should leave education untutored in the narrative of the English nation, to become fodder for fools and extremists.  No one should be ignorant of the triumphs and disasters that have marked England’s course.  I still reel from my son, with GSCE history under his belt, once asking me, “If Hitler was the Second World War, Dad, what was the first?””

Jenkins then points out:  “History cannot be understood as a series of isolated “issues”, shouting their disparate wares from a crowded stage.  Such episodic teaching lacks the drama of narrative and the potency of cause and effect.  It is history flat, undynamic, boring.  You cannot tell a story without starting at the beginning and ending at the end.”
He also states:  “To understand an event, we must know what went before, and that means right back to the start.”

And:  “I have come to regard England as the most remarkable country in European history.  While its relations with its neighbours, especially Celtic ones, have often been appalling, its ability to assimilate newcomers, reform its politics, care for its citizens and be a liberal beacon to the world, is astonishing.”

And this is where I start to get more than excited.  This is where I start to stand and cheer.  Because he’s right.  Absolutely right.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks rereading Gregor Dallas’s entertaining and wholly engaging history of the Congress of Vienna, 1815:  The Roads to Waterloo.  And throughout, I have been struck again and again by both how great a writer Dallas is, but also how innovative a thing was this Congress of Vienna. 

There’d never been a European congress before.  Not ever.  No gathering of anything like the G-8 or any other kind of pan-European convention or League of Nations or UN.  The initiating nations (Prussia, Russia, Austria and Great Britain) didn’t even have a protocol for inviting the other European powers–so they just inserted notices into all the newspapers announcing that it was going to commence at the beginning of September.  How’s that for amateur? 

It worked though.  A little too well, some might say.

Great Britain didn’t have an official foreign policy at the time either.  If you were the Foreign Secretary, you made it up as you went along, as situations demanded.   The country itself, that is to say the newspapers and MPs, were wound up over two matters pretty much exclusively–the sour relations between the Prince Regent and his estranged wife and the proposed reintroduction of the slave trade by France.

Even that shows just how remarkably forward the British were in terms of human rights and legislation.  The British were the first European country to outlaw the slave trade and slavery, in 1807.  (Italy didn’t legislate against slavery until the early 20th century.)  Yet there the British were in 1814, raising the roof against France resuming the trade and practice, under the reinstated Bourbon monarch. 

Much is made out of the so-called reactionary governmental policies that followed Waterloo in 1815–cue lots of media frowning and booing (especially by the BBC in their recent series on the Prince Regent).  But by 1832, the Great Reform Act had been passed, the vote extended and Parliament reformed…

(And it would have been in the 1850s, more than ten years later, that their European neighbours–France, Italy and Germany–were still…well…Italy and Germany were only being established as nations in their own right, and the French were manning the barricades…again.)

As Jenkins says, remarkable! 

Yet so often, we cut our forebears no slack.  We know little about them or their lives or the custom of the day, yet we condemn them for not handling situations with the same 21st century political correctness that we believe we would show in times of stress.  We blame them for not handling the economic transformation as driven by the Industrial Revolution as well as we, with our Cambridge MBA’s, would do.  And on and on.  Or perhaps we just think, we’re here today, they don’t matter…

Well, no and no and no!

These chappies were tremendous.  They took duff situation after duff situation and they triumphed.  They are unique in turning awkwardness into a robust kind of democracy.

The English facing off with Spain which culminated in Spain sending the Armada and its invasion troops against our fairly dinky navy?  However Elizabeth didn’t just have the whole country behind the navy at that fateful meeting in the Channel, she changed the way the world thought about England at that time and ever since.    

The absence of a king–the first two Georges in the 18th century, George I and George II, spent most of their time abroad in Hanover–and their delegation of power to a Prime Minister, (which should have meant governmental weakness)?  It was this which allowed the Parliamentary system to really learn its business.  And it also meant that here, a ‘court’ society never grew up–the aristocracy were never required to be absent from their land and dependents attending to some king or queen’s vanity, such as proved so destructive to the French aristrocracy in 1789, for example.  There never was a ‘court’ versus the ‘people’ split here as there was on the Continent. 

I don’t mean to suggest that there haven’t been mistakes.  There have been.  But all the more reason to learn and love history, even as rugby teams study the footage of those games they’ve lost to discover what went wrong and why and how they might have played better.    

Which is precisely why I find myself nodding in agreement with Jenkins’s conclusion:  “History is fascinating and vital.  Without it democracy is dumb.”

And now, I have a book on the Congress of Vienna to finish, and a historical novel to start writing…


4 comments on “Without history, democracy is dumb…

  1. Thoughtful as always, Bennetts. Cheers. Now can you please hurry up and write that next novel, some of us are running out of things to read and frankly… some of it was utter something or other… oh, and you have mail

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I’m working at it, I’m working at it. I give you my word. There I am, day upon day, with my history books and my home-made calendar, writing in who was where, who was having a meeting with Metternich, where the Poles were, where the Russian army was (200,000 of them still in Poland), where Alexander was and who he was seeing, who’s in the pay of whom.

  2. My favourite reference book is the Historical Atlas. Because it illustrates not only the narrative of history but also the outside influences behind each upheaval.
    Having said that, Geography is a much broader church now than it was when I was in school. Cobbling it together with history is OK for a module but not as a complete subject because that necessitates the removing of really important Geographical stuff like understanding where water comes from and how we emerged from the ice age and the mechanics of our planet. Likewise,we have to lose the whole political, social and religious study of history so it does just end up as a dumb list of battles and dead toffs.
    Now, I have nothing against dead toffs, even living toffs are bearable in small doses but there is obviously much more to history than that.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I have a very cool Historical Atlas and I love it.

      One point Jenkins didn’t make is that the study of Geography has also been infantilised to a point of uselessness. When I was in school we learned all the countries of the world, and about their terrain, natural resources–yes, their capital cities–and their major exports. (Obviously guano from South America was the most ooh-inspiring.) Now, they study none of that. They learn nothing about their own country’s geography and even less about the rest of the world’s.

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