I remember history as it was taught in Scottish schools in the 1940s and very early 1950s. It glorified Empire and reduced Scottish history to a footnote in that empire, sentimentalising and trivialising, when not actively distorting the real story of my country. It glossed over or concealed the appalling history of religious persecution perpetrated by both Catholics and Protestants on each other and any other faith that challenged their dogmas.
I was well into adulthood before I began to recognise it for what it was - a grossly distorted and biased viewpoint that had passed for an objective record of my world and my country, Scotland. But I am now alive to the fact that history has never been wholly objective, and even the historian who strives for that elusive objectivity is a creature of his or her time, and the grand narratives that exist in that time.
Much more insidious, however, is the historian with an agenda, driven by personal political beliefs, perhaps acting as the tool of a political establishment with a vested interest in presenting a grand narrative that supports its power objectives and strategy, and sanitises the ugly aspects of its past.
History is written by the victors, or at least by those currently holding the reins of power.
So it was with deep suspicion that I read of an initiative, admirable in itself, by Lord Wilson, a former Cabinet secretary and himself a historian, to create “a more methodological and chronological approach to history”, not because I doubted Lord Wilson’s motives – but because he was presenting this to government with a view to revising the national curriculum and that his presentation was to Michael Gove, who has stated that he would like the historian Niall Ferguson to play a key role in changing the history curriculum.
I leave you to judge whether you want either Michael Gove or Niall Ferguson to have a key role in shaping what is presented as history in our schools. I am deeply unhappy about the prospect of either of them in this role. There may be little one can do about Michael Gove – he is, after all, Schools Secretary in the new coalition government – but I hope a historian other than Niall Ferguson can be found to drive the initiative, just so long as it isn’t Andrew Roberts or David Starkey.
All three of the above have appeared on the BBC’s Question Time, and their views are well represented on YouTube, so if you are unfamiliar with them, short of reading their major works, there is a simple way to get a flavour of what they are all about, and come to your own view about what kind of influence they would exert on the history curriculum – listen to them on YouTube or Question Time extracts. In addition to their academic work posts and published work, they are all also very much media personalities.
So do your homework and make your judgements, and don’t leave it too long – the view of the world, and especially the view of the Union and of Scotland’s place in it presented to a new generation of students will be fundamentally affected by the historian chosen by Michael Gove.
My preference would be for Professor Ivor Norman Richard Davies, and I make this judgement based on his total record, but particularly on his massive work The Isles – A History, (1999) a thousand riveting pages of the history of these islands – Britain if you like – which to me represents history as it should have been taught.
The book caught my eye because on the back, among glowing, enthusiastic reviews by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto of the Sunday Times, Noel Malcolm of the Evening Standard, David Marquand of Literary Review, and Linda Colley of The Times Literary Supplement, there was the following -
“This is a dangerous book, written at a dangerous time.”
Andrew Roberts, Daily Mail
Anything Andrew Roberts and the Daily Mail were against must be well worth reading was my immediate reaction, and my instinct was right.
I do hope that you discover the book for yourself if you have not already read it. Let me give the following extract as an example of what you will find about Scotland in its fascinating pages.
Pages 444/445 of the chapter The Englished Isles
“Unlike Wales and England, Scotland remained a fully independent country throughout the sixteenth century. As yet, she had not entangled herself with England, even in the limited union of crowns that was to occur after Elisabeth’s death. She experienced her own Reformation, which had followed a very different path from England’s and which produced a national church that survives to the present day. She possessed her own legal system which also survives, she had her own Parliament, and her own Estate of Nobles, who ran the Parliament. She had her own monarchy, and a ruling dynasty that had held their throne for twice as long as the Tudors. She had venerable political, social and cultural traditions that were every bit as ancient as those of her English neighbours. Yet none of these topics were destined to find their way into the mainstream of British historiography. When they weren’t forgotten entirely, they would be parked in a closed reservation, only to be visited by Scottish antiquarians, by Presbyterian divines, and by the odd eccentric patriot. The extent of mainstream neglect may be gauged by the fact that the sixteenth century chapter of the recently updated edition of The Oxford History of Britain (1999) does not bother to mention the internal affairs of Scotland once.”
The Isles – a History by Norman Davies (1999)
Norman Davies is an Englishman, born in Bolton, Lancashire. I should perhaps quote Niall Ferguson, a Scot, on this book.
“The publication of Norman Davies’s The Isles is a historiographical milestone, the culmination of years of revisionism by a generation of scholars whose common purpose has been to dismantle the “Anglocentric” version of British history.”
Niall Ferguson, The Sunday Times
This could be read in isolation as support for Norman Davies, especially since Niall Ferguson can be described also as a revisionist historian, except for the fact that his revisionism attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of the British Empire. Here is a quote from Johann Hari in 2006 – a fine writer and journalist, and a trenchant critic of the British Empire.
“When I criticised Ferguson for dedicating almost as much space in his revisionist history of Empire to the slaughter of 29 million people as he gives to a description of a statue of the Prince of Wales made out of butter, he responded primarily with personal abuse, comparing me to a children’s writer. He claims that my sources, like Caroline Elkins’ history of British atrocities in Kenya, are “sensationalist” and therefore not worthy of consideration. If that is so, why did Ferguson himself praise Elkins’ “painstaking research”, on the cover of her book no less?
It seems that Ferguson is not only trying to rewrite the history of Empire but also that of his own life. He says, “I pass over the strange charge [by Hari] that I am "court historian for the imperial American hard right". Anyone who has read my book Colossus: The Decline and Fall of the American Empire will know how laughably wide of the mark that is.” Yes, do check his book. The only criticism he has of American empire is that it is insufficiently like the British and suffers from “the absence of a will to power.” Is this really laughably far from my description?”
Keep a close eye on this coalition, on its schools secretary, Michael Gove, his plans to influence the history curriculum in our schools, and his choice of historian to spearhead the initiative. Your children’s view of Scotland in the next decade may depend on your vigilance, and your voice.