The Recent Attacks on The National Trust Shows Britain Still Prefers Fiction To Facts
Media and government attacks on The National Trust’s project stem from the quintessentially British tradition of purposely obscuring the past.
There has never been a good time to be a historian exploring colonialism in the United Kingdom — the last remaining part of an Empire which once boasted that the sun never sets on it — but this year has been particularly trying for those invested in accurately documenting the past.
Last week saw a coordinated media campaign against four historians that are part of the National Trust — the latest in a long series of reactionary establishment attacks on the country’s premier charity thanks to their latest project, which investigates the connections that 93 houses in their care have with colonialism and slavery. Many of the right-wing commentators and historians who bellicosely rejected the Trust’s recently published report did so not out of scholarly principle, but rather out of outrage that the report mentioned Winston Churchill’s role in the British colonial administration and his vociferous opposition to Indian independence.
The Conservative Party’s response has been delightfully Orwellian. Sixty of its MPs have formed a new “Common Sense Group”, and have demanded that the Trust’s charity status be revoked as it is an organisation that has “denigrated British history and heritage” by daring to expose its properties’ links to empire. The fact that British history denigrated so many in the first place, of course, is not of interest.
Colonial Countryside, the name of the project which began in 2018, is far from the only attempt to understand Britain’s history of slavery. But it has faced unprecedented hostility after this year’s renewed Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder; a movement which helped inflame public curiosity about Europe’s racist past. The scale of opprobrium could be because the Trust is Britain’s largest membership organisation with 5.5 million supporters. But the relentless targeting of a group of historians simply doing their job smacks of something altogether more sinister.
The British state’s response to the debates provoked by the BLM have either been outright condemnations or insipid statements of support. Many of the ruling establishment are evidently deeply troubled by the focus on Britain’s colonial past, and have sought to discredit antiracist movements and historians critical of empire altogether. For example, Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, told the Times last week that the National Trust had been “overtaken by divisive Black Lives Matter supporters,” following the report’s publication. Evidently the British right-wing have taken a leaf out of their American cousins’ book with their newfound penchant for smearing anti-racist movements and black activist groups.
Every aspect of the British past is sanitised to produce a bowdlerised tale of Empire that the public is aggressively encouraged to adopt. Slavery, on the rare occasions it is actually taught in secondary schools, is a story of white Emancipation and unconnected to resistance. Be it the 1831 Baptist War, or the activities of the Maroons, history has been recast to negate the agency of non-white historical actors. And colonialism? One is expected to be grateful for the euphemistically termed “exchange”; liberty, pre-colonial political structures, and immense wealth in exchange for a few railways originally built to more effectively pillage the natural resources of their respective colonies.
To understand this is to suddenly challenge all the pretensions force fed to the British public from birth. Realising that freedom was taken from the clutches of a weakened colonial power, not granted out of the kindness of Western liberalism lets the cat out of the bag; those in charge of the Empire were never the good guys.
It also brings up uncomfortable questions about the accumulation of wealth in Britain’s institutions and amongst its most prominent families. Two weeks ago, the public learned that the immense financial resources of the Tory MP Richard Drax were originally earned by his family’s expertise in the trading of human flesh. The tired retort that reparations are a ludicrous suggestion because the perpetrators of those crimes are long gone seems even less acceptable when so many still enjoy the profits earned from human misery.
But the current British government’s dogged opposition to any criticism of the Empire is about more than just being ignorant; it is about distracting the public from the grim realities of the present day by feeding into reactionary outrage.
The Tory key strategy of employing imperialist braggadocio is not new. Margaret Thatcher’s government was equally adept at flogging that particular dead horse, and Tony Blair’s New Labour party justified their illegal invasion of Iraq with the tired pablum of “Britain representing order and democracy”.
But what is new are the immense challenges that currently plague this country. From the abysmal (and mind-bogglingly corrupt) handling of the pandemic by insipid chumocrats at the heart of Westminster, to the deeper structural wealth inequalities that have only been exacerbated by a decade of austerity, the United Kingdom is in a precarious position.
As a result it is rare to find any official statement, from announcing vaccines to last-minute lockdown restrictions, that is not accompanied by an increasingly manic assertion that plucky little England being the best of the best. Encouraging a more honest discussion about Britain’s past will puncture the recrudescence of this historical myopia; which perhaps explains the current official antipathy towards projects such as Colonial Countryside. That unsteady state of affairs will only get worse come the new year as the country topples out of the European Union, led by a government who have demonstrated they are nothing short of being incompetently cruel.
The sun set on the Empire a long time ago. Time to learn why the majority of the world recognises that as a cause for celebration, and why some in Britain still insist it is one of consternation.