Below, J. Unsworth, a DDU supporter and former student of History and English Literature, explains why she found an event at Cambridge University on Winston Churchill left much to be desired. The level of debate among learned academics shows, once again, that ‘the divisiveness and tribalism that emerges now again in different periods and different cultures has never led to anything good.’ Being academically qualified does not make you wiser, more moral, or a better citizen than the majority of other citizens outside academia:
I had expected better from an event held at one of our elite academic institutions. It is unlikely that the panel discussion on Winston Churchill held at Cambridge University on the 11th February would convince anyone who wasn’t already wedded to a set of jaundiced and one-sided views. If it is crass and bombastic to see Churchill only as a saviour and hero, it is equally crass and bombastic to see him only as an oppressor and racist. Lack of balance does not improve historical knowledge, it infantilises it.
What we teach our children matters and so, therefore, does what we teach those who are going to teach our children. The unedifying verbiage that is spilling out of sections of academia at the moment, sadly much in evidence at the discussion at Cambridge University, therefore, merits subjection to inspection. There is always a chance that these hallowed halls of learning will just become a laughing-stock in the world, which would serve them right, but they are charging their students a lot of money and there should be an expectation that what they teach them has been subjected to rigorous scrutiny through which claims of truthful knowledge are validated.
Politics, of course, is always with us, and it is not unknown, or necessarily always undesirable, for students to experiment with the role of revolutionary zealot. But today the wish to épater les bourgeois has merged with a less benign desire among a mainly younger clique of academics who hope to impress with their superior knowledge of arcane issues or their outré views. It’s as if some who have a burning urge to exact revenge for slights or injustices, real or imagined, also feel intellectually superior to the lay public. The psychological processes of those who enjoy spouting venom and ill-will towards their fellow men are always difficult for the man on the Clapham omnibus to understand; he is more interested in paying his mortgage, feeding his kids and finding the taxes which help to support the institutions that hold him, and his views, in such contempt.
It is possible to feel sympathy for the learned doctors who are so desperate to convince us what an evil people we are and how absent are the redeeming features of our terrible past. However, even in our state of original sin we might have a reasonable expectation that statements about historical events would not just be presented in a lop-sided way, especially when they come from people who are themselves complaining that history is misrepresented in this country. It may be the case, or at any rate, there is always the potential to improve the state of our collective knowledge. But replacing one cherry-picked version of history with an equally biased and sectarian view does not balance the books. Nor should historical study be treated purely as a vehicle for views that advance a political stance or belief. To do this neatly avoids having to make your claims in the public arena without borrowed academic authority.
Blaming the Bengal famine wholly on Churchill is not new. Churchill had been warned of what was likely to happen and did not react adequately to prevent it. The tragedy was a failure of British rule in India and Churchill was undoubtedly unsympathetic to the plight of the Indians and unwilling to divert resources from the war effort. Roosevelt was equally unwilling to facilitate any relief action that would prop up the British Empire. The circumstances of the fall of Burma, the scorched-earth policy, the boat policy, the failure of harvests and the difficulties of attempting to fight a war on many different fronts and with exhausted financial resources contributed to the failure. The Indian landlord and class systems, the unwillingness of the moneyed classes to help, the unsolved problem of the rural poor and the internal struggle for power and independence, also contributed to the problem. All this still remains a highly simplified version of the conditions that lead to the Bengal famine, but it is a more comprehensive, better balanced, and honest account than the simplified declaration that the famine happened because Churchill was a racist and no better than a Nazi. No doubt he held, and voiced, prejudiced and ignorant views of Indian people as inferior in terms of culture or dispositions. But claims of historical truth require more than repeating examples of egregious personal behaviour in ever shrill tones.
The same over-simplification of a complex issue is evidenced by panellist Dr Madhusree Mukerjee’s assertions that “militarism is the core of the British identity”, and calling for statues to be removed because: “It was the Soviets who defeated the Nazis and the Americans who defeated the Japanese.” It is the lack of nuance and maturity in the comments that raise doubts about Dr Mukerjee’s command of historical knowledge. Britain is a country that historically has a bit of an aversion to keeping a standing army, an odd characteristic for a nation that is being described as militaristic. The militarism of the Prussian state in particular was a source of both awe and criticism for sections of Britain’s political class at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. That is one of the reasons why the country was not well-prepared to enter WWII and one of the reasons, but only one of the reasons, why it was unable to defend the diverse and widespread components of the Empire after battle was joined.
The issue of who defeated the Nazis is equally complicated. It is undoubtedly true that Britain alone could not defeat the Axis powers; neither is this piece of information a skeleton kept in the cupboard. For a period of time Russia was allied with the Germans and the USA was determined to stay out of the war. Churchill strained every sinew to change that. America had the resources to supply the war effort and Britain passed some of these resources onto Russia once they had made a political volte-face when Hitler forced them to defend themselves. The war, and the attempted defence of the Empire, bankrupted Britain and led to a period of austerity. Nobody would ever assume from their statements that any of the historians taking part in the Oxford discussion had even the most rudimentary understanding of these facts. They see everything through the lens of race and a determination that the only thing that matters to modern Britons is a memory of an imperial past that was abandoned long ago.
There are several interesting things about these historians. They are unable to disengage from the past or to stop applying the standards of today to it; they present their political agendas as indisputable truths, regardless of the inconvenience of the evidence; and they clearly have a terrible dislike for any British person who does not share their views, refuses to accept their versions of the past, or their judgments of British identity. Nor is there any real reason why everybody should accept their versions of history, their politics or their claims to be the arbiters of how Britain should be construed either internally to its own citizens, or externally to the world. They are just a bunch of people, with no more claim to rectitude or moral certitude than any other bunch of people. Britain allows them the liberty of freedom of speech, as it does for the rest of us, but it does not allow them the freedom to be right. That judgment is for each and every one of us. What happens, I wonder, if the rest of us just say no to the new cultural elites’ demands for apologies and shame-faced withdrawal from the public arena