UK: Black History Month and contested history

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been speaking a lot about history recently. October has become by tradition “Black History Month” in England and it has become customary for the Prime Minister of the day to make some pronouncement.

That there should be the need for such a month reflects the fact that history has too often been rewritten in a Eurocentric manner to glorify the white men of property and their criminal deeds, the human traffickers and imperialists of the world, not only immortalised in history books, but presented to everyone in the form of statues and other public history displays. The fact that the history of African and Caribbean people in Britain is only formally recognised in one month of the year is also a reflection of this wider Eurocentrism, which finds its expression throughout the education system, the media and the entire society. It is a reflection of the racism and Eurocentrism that has been the preferred policy of the powers that be in Britain for many centuries, emerging from the fact that the rulers of Britain were the world’s leading human traffickers, enslavers and imperialist robbers. The presentation of history has therefore always been contested, reflecting a wider struggle that goes on in society between the powers that be, the defenders of the status quo, slavery, colonialism, racism and the capital-centred system, and the vast majority striving to make history by empowering themselves and ridding the world of all forms of exploitation and oppression.

Cover of the opera “Alfred” written by Thomas Arne containing the aria “Rule Britannia”

Boris Johnson referred to the rewriting of history in his speech to the Conservative Party conference this week, boasting of his pride in “this country’s culture and history and traditions’, while condemning those who “want to pull statues down, and to rewrite the history of our country, to edit our national CV to make it look more politically correct.” The Prime Minister did not elaborate greatly on which aspects of this culture, history and traditions he was proud other than to reiterate his well-known defence of “Rule Britannia’, a composition written in 1740 for an opera designed to stir up belligerence and chauvinism. This theme, of course, is very much in keeping with successive governments’ ambitions to make Britain “great’ again, as well as their defence of the criminal history of the British empire, which based itself on human trafficking and other crimes against humanity throughout the world.

That Johnson should make such remarks was hardly surprising since his own racist views are well-known. His remarks come just a few weeks after the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport sent a reiteration of the government’s policy on what it refers to as “contested heritage” in a letter to publicly-funded museums, archives, and the Heritage Lottery Fund. In short, the government “does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects”, however offensive they may be. It is not just opposed to the removal of statues glorifying human traffickers and crimes against humanity by the democratic will of the people, as occurred in Bristol in June earlier this year, but also any actions by museums themselves which are “motivated by activism and politics.” It appears that the government does not view its own actions as similarly motivated. It has already put pressure on the Museum of the Home in London not to remove a stature glorifying another human trafficker an d former Lord Mayor of London, even after a public consultation showed overwhelming support for its removal. There is already a requirement for museums to notify the government “in advance of any actions or public statements in relation to contested heritage or histories.”

The government has already faced strong criticism for its approach to museums and “contested heritage and histories”, but it has recently also attempted to strengthen directives on what should be taught in schools. The Department for Education has recently issued guidelines for the statutory teaching of the new relationship curriculum requiring that schools “should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters.” Such extreme political stances include:

  • promoting non-democratic political systems rather than those based on democracy, whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise;
  • teaching that requirements of English civil or criminal law may be disregarded whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise; and
  • selecting and presenting information to make unsubstantiated accusations against state institutions

In addition, schools “should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation. Examples of extreme political stances include, but are not limited to:

  • a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections;
  • the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity; and
  • a failure to condemn illegal activities done in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people or property..”

These guidelines have already provoked strong opposition from teachers’ organisations and educationalists. They demonstrate that the government is increasingly interfering in all aspects of society to promote partisan political views, even though at the same time it acknowledges that there are alternative views, which are being suppressed and more often reflect the reality, experience and interests of the majority.

Johnson’s comments on “Black History Month” suggesting that “black history and British history are one and the same” is therefore a complete nonsense, since whose presentation of the past is he referring to? The history of most African and Caribbean people in Britain over the last five hundred years has been a struggle against human trafficking and slavery, against colonialism and racism, against unjust laws and all the economic, social and political consequences of the capital-centred system both in Britain and abroad. It has been a struggle against the glorification of crimes against humanity and Eurocentrism in all forms. In short, it has been a struggle against everything that Johnson, his government and successive governments represent. In this context it is not surprising that the government is doing everything to suppress and distort that history of struggle, which has also been the history of the majority of people in Britain, and to promote and glorify whatever can deprive the majority of an outlook which favours their interests.

The struggles of people of all nationalities for an end to racism and Eurocentrism are continuing and demonstrate the urgent need for people to empower themselves and become the decision makers.

Workers’ Weekly, Volume 50, Number 38 October 10 2020. Workers’ Weekly is the weekly on line newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). Its website is here.

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