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Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Value of a 'Knowledge of History' in Post-Brexit Britain

The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has announced that the Conservative government of the UK will (or is at least considering whether to) introduce legislation to compel firms to produce lists of foreign employees.  On this basis it can - allegedly - shame them for not employing enough British people.

Lists of 'foreigners'.  To be distinguished from those people who happened to be born in the contingently-defined area of the earth's surface now recognised as comprising the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  That, after all, is fundamentally how you define a nation in the modern world.

Brexit secretary Liam Fox wants to differentiate between immigrants who arrive “without ever having created anything” and those who -presumably - have created 'something'.

I confess that I find all this terrifying. 

Some people dismiss it as simple pandering to racist elements, things that could never be made workable.  I am not so sanguine about that.  What I am perhaps too sanguine about is that I steadily refuse to believe that everyone who voted for Brexit really thought that it would lead to this or approves of it.  I don't even believe that all Tories approve of this, and indeed Anna Soubry evidently spoke to another fringe group at the same time as Fox was speaking, arguing that politicians had a responsibility to counter, rather than to fuel anti-immigrant feeling when it arose.

More than a few people have pointed out that compiling lists differentiating 'foreign workers' from people with UK citizenship ought to ring some serious alarm bells.  James O'Brien at LBC eloquently pointed out that it has more than a slight ring of Mein Kampf about it (you can possibly find the clip here).  Rudd herself apparently got very annoyed by this sort of rejoinder, claiming that she had been careful to avoid that sort of language - presumably by studiously refusing to quote Mein Kampf in the original German.  One response to the situation has been that if you aren't worried by these developments you need to read more history.

But do you?  Is that the value of a historical education?  Being able to say "Ooh, hang on, isn't that a teeny bit Third-Reich-y"?  With broad historical knowledge you could compile a long list of unsavoury regimes that have done things like this.  In the period I study, the Visigoths passed laws criminalising entire communities who failed to grass up any unconverted Jews in their midst. And so on.

But then so what?

The political come-back to all that is to claim that that is just hysterical.  How can you call us Nazis?  What do we see now in the US if not the fact that the general ubiquity of accusations of Nazism (Goodwin's Law) since 1945 has robbed them of any efficaciousness even when staring something like the real thing right in the face? One problem in political dialogue is that, somehow, accusations from the right of being 'just like Stalin/the Soviet Union' have managed to retain some sort of effectiveness while appeals to similarities with the Nazis are (except on the Far Right, where it is in any case a source of pride) seen as over-the-top.  Has the unique, unimaginable awfulness of the Nazis taken them entirely out of the realms of discourse?  Are they now linked solely to one historically-specific, unrepeatable signifier, with no content in the realm of the imaginary?

In any case, as I will argue in Why History Doesn't Matter, the simple deployment of 'warnings from the past' is very easily countered by any politician worth their salt.  The politician will say that it is an over-reaction; the politician will claim it is a misplaced analogy, for reasons A-Z; the politician will thank the historians but assure them and the voters that policies will be in place to prevent that, or will say that, by learning from the past they will ensure such mistakes do not happen again.

And do you actually need to have amassed that knowledge via a historical education to see that this is a pretty terrifying development?  I don't think so.  Surely, all you need is a minimally-developed sense of basic humanity and power of imagination.  It would be in that sphere that I would claim lies the value of a real historical education.  The critical investigation of what you are told, to be sure, but also the exercises in imagination necessary to conceive of other world views, held by other actual people, and the capacity to be able to listen to those views and trying to understand them - critically of course, and without refusing judgement in the final analysis. You cannot really be critical of something until you have tried to understand it.  The act of understanding and explaining in my experience inevitably dilutes senses of 'otherness'.

That makes it very difficult to write off other human beings simply by attaching to them a set of labels provided by a governing party.

That's how we need to think historically.

My experience of the study of History leads me to conclude that we need to oppose Theresa May, Amber Rudd, Liam Fox and the rest, not because their policies look a bit like those of the Nazis but because by any even entry-level standards of humanity they're just not right.