Policy Exchange launches new history project

Jun 28, 2020

History matters. At all levels of society, how we view the past informs our political choices. This has always been the case. Yet in recent weeks history has become the focus of a new culture war that, having started on the political fringes, now seems to be having a direct effect on mainstream institutions, many of which are rushing to distance themselves from controversial aspects of their past.

The Bank of England has “commenced a thorough review of its collection of images of former Governors and Directors to ensure none with any such involvement in the slave trade remain on display anywhere in the Bank”. The Rugby Football Union is reviewing the singing of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” by fans, as it is thought to have been written in the mid-19th century by Wallace Willis, a black slave. The Tate galleries, named after the industrialist Henry Tate, who made his fortune as a sugar refiner, reportedly may be renamed, despite the fact that Tate was not himself a slave-owner or slave-trader. Elsewhere, universities are actively considering the “decolonising” of curriculums; authorities are debating the removal of statues of historical figures from public squares; and other institutions – including the National Trust – are considering how to address their links to past wrongs. Across the board, the speed and scale of what is happening is striking – as institutions seek to insulate themselves from the charge of ‘being on the wrong side of history’.

Yet whose history is it? And how should it be written/commemorated in the public sphere? Few are stopping to debate these questions. And in this fast-moving debate, it is noticeable that the voice of the public has scarcely been considered. Polling commissioned by Policy Exchange finds that:

  1. 69% are proud of UK history as a whole, with only 17% saying it is something to be ashamed of
  2. 65% say “it is unfair to make judgments about people in the past based on today’s values” and agree that “statues of people who were once celebrated should be allowed to stand”
  3. 77% say “We should learn from history rather than try to re-write it”
  4. Only 20% agree that “we should question how we look at British history and no longer recognise success if it caused misery or suffering to some victims”
  5. 80% say Churchill’s statue should stay in Parliament Square, after a Black Lives Matter leader said it should be removed, with clear support for Churchill staying put across all age groups
  6. Serious concerns about role of police in protecting statues, with 75% saying they need to protect statues from violent removal
  7. And concerns that children aren’t being taught enough history, or well enough, to make value judgements about contemporary questions such as removing statues
  8. 60% think children should have to study history to GCSE

Policy Exchange’s History Matters Project – chaired by Trevor Phillips, Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange, and launched today – will address these concerns, document the re-writing of history as it happens, and explore modern Britain’s treatment of its past. It brings together a panel of historians, thinkers and experts in public policy to reflect on the way in which history is being debated in the public sphere: how it is presented in our institutions, from statues in town squares to national museum exhibits; how it is taught in this country’s schools and universities; and how it can be used to create a shared sense of belonging and identity that befits 21st century Britain.

History Matters Project Panel

The History Matters Project has the following members on its panel – historians, public figures and people interested in history:
Trevor Phillips – Chair
Nimco Ali
Lord Bew of Donegore
Professor Jeremy Black
Dr Amanda Foreman
Professor Greta Jones
Dr Zareer Masani
Andrew Roberts
Sir Anthony Seldon
Samir Shah
Chris Skidmore MP

Trevor Phillips, who is chairing the History Matters project, says: “Much of this action by mainstream institutions and public bodies is well-meaning. Some of it is happening alongside laudable and overdue efforts to increase diversity and tackle genuine racism. We all want to find ways to improve the life opportunities and outcomes for people from BAME backgrounds – and we want to find ways to build shared narratives and histories. But what concerns me about the current moment is the rapid and unthinking way in which large swathes of our public heritage is being effectively re-written, or erased entirely – much of it seemingly without much proper debate or forethought. It all adds up to a major transformation in the way in which we deal with history in the public square. At a minimum, we think there needs to be pause for reflection – and to consider what is being done, why and with what effect. My worry too is that this new culture war risks distracting from us from the practical steps that need to be taken to make a real and lasting practical difference to the lives of BAME people in this country. When even one the most distinguished contemporary African leaders, Graca Machel, argues that Rhodes should not fall, and should serve as a constant reminder of the history of which he was a part, maybe we should listen to her words”

This project is part of Policy Exchange’s New Politics Monitor, which seeks to monitor the drift towards ever more abrasive forms of political discourse.

Today, Policy Exchange issues a call for evidence asking people to share their experiences and concerns about the ways in which history is being politicised, and sometimes distorted, in the current moment, sending their evidence to callforevidence@policyexchange.org.uk.

This might include:

  1. Examples where public memory is being re-written, perhaps because certain historical subjects, or people, are deemed to be too controversial for a public setting such as a museum or town square
  2. Examples where a publicly available resource – a curriculum, website, textbook, museum exhibit or similar – displays a one-sided or distorted view of history.
  3. Examples where academic freedom appears to be under threat, perhaps because historical subjects are being neglected, or avoided altogether by teaching staff because they are deemed too controversial or challenging.

We also today publish a compendium of evidence gathered so far, centred on the treatment of history in the public square – including statues on public display, history as taught in school and university curriculums, history as approached by businesses and institutions, and the renaming of buildings and places. The inclusion of a particular example does not reflect any judgment on the actions of the individual or institution in question, today or in the past. Our aim is simply to provide a clear documentary record of what is happening – which can help inform public debate on these issues. At present, the evidence confirms that history is the most active front in a new culture war, and that action is being taken widely and quickly in a way that does not reflect public opinion or growing concern over our treatment of the past.

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