…and on another front of the culture war

“The National Trust has been contacted by the charity regulator over claims that it has strayed from its ‘clear, simple purpose’ to preserve historic buildings and treasures. Regulators approached the charity this month after receiving complaints from the public about its review into links between its estate and slavery during the British empire.”

Do people really go into a historic building already knowing everything about it? Is it the intention that the National Trust should simply preserve its historic buildings in aspic and leave us to sort out what the buildings tell us? Even historians don’t know all the stories behind the vast number of National Trust, or other historic sites, that are accessible in a country with such a rich history. A good guide brings an inanimate room to life, so that you can begin to appreciate the reasons why the property exists, who built it, its significance and where it fits into the other bits of history that you know. To be useful, this has to cover more than a catalogue of inert facts: being told that something is bigger than 17 London buses may be true but it does not add much to the story. Inevitably, since human beings are involved, some of the stories may be unpleasant – the story of Edward II’s demise at Berkeley Castle is not for the faint hearted. And equally inevitably, some of the stories may challenge the comfortable version of history that we learned at school. For me, hearing contrasting versions of history is one of the main reasons for visiting new places.

History is not immutable, it changes depending on the time and place from which you view it. A visit to Buckland Abbey in Devon will introduce you to the story of Sir Francis Drake. To our prime minister, he is one of those buccaneering first Elizabethans who are rôle models for global Britain. To the Spanish, he was a pirate. He is probably not very popular in Ireland either. Even in his own time, by the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, his reputation had been damaged by a series of disastrous military episodes, including the English Armada of 1589, which cost 12,000 lives, 20 ships and achieved nothing. Most recently, we have come to notice his activity as a slave trader. He was, of course, all of these things, which brings us to the subjective nature of history and national mythology.

To state the obvious, the stories that we learn about our history are one of the elements that create our idea of what and who we are as a nation. The title of Linda Colley’s book, “Britons: Forging of a Nation”, written to describe the development of the idea of ‘Briton’, following the Act of Union between England and Scotland, perfectly captures the way in which that image is an artificial construct. Even before the invention of social media, we have been telling ourselves stories that reinforce the ideas that we already like. Historical dramas tend to concentrate on the glamorous parts of history and so we watch Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle, once owned by Lord Caernarvon who funded the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun), and we visit stately homes, for the rose tinted view of the good old days. I don’t suppose many people aspire to a place in the underside of history as third starving tin miner in Poldark, or pretty well anyone in Harlots!

History tends to be rather more complex than one simple narrative suggests. As the example of Francis Drake shows, different people will have different views of the same historical figure. We can pick the one that reinforces our own stereotypes or we can broaden our minds by hearing about other peoples’ perspectives. As a nation, we can hang on to our images of imperial splendour, although, with our present modest status in the world, it will not get us very far. We may have a misty-eyed nostalgia for days gone by, but some of those whom we conquered and ruled may have a rather less benign view of our legacy. As ’global Britain’, these are the countries with whom we must do business and we would be well advised to understand their perspective rather than simply assuming our own. Boris Johnson reciting Kipling in Myanmar is a prime example.

Within our own society, there are plenty of British citizens whose view of the Empire does not accord with the traditional imperial story. If we want black Britons to belong in the United Kingdom, why should they accept a version of history that glosses over the slave trade? If we want Britons of Asian ethnic origin to belong, we might want to think differently about British rule in India. If we want the Scots or Irish to belong to a United Kingdom, why should they accept a version of history that is essentially English?

The National Trust is richly endowed with some of the finest houses in the country and they have a fascinating story to tell about our history. But let us get over the idea that it is a comfortable, rose tinted story and recognise that our national history has some very dubious aspects that go alongside the ‘glorious past’. There is a view that considers any deviation from some authorised version of history to be ’culturally controversial’. On the contrary, surely the National Trust has an absolute obligation to tell uncomfortable stories, at least as much as it has done, to preserve the physical legacy. Any view of our past that cannot survive the simplest scrutiny is not worth having.

“Human beings, who are almost unique in the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” Douglas Adams