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Opinion After conference the Tory war on history will intensify

Forget the ‘woke’ debate — Boris Johnson pointedly ignoring black history is an attempt to write minorities out of the future as well as the past, argues KEITH FLETT

AS usual, while the Tory conference in Manchester had a backdrop of very serious issues for working people, it wasn’t itself a serious occasion. It was essentially a large gathering of lobbyists, looking for sinecures and contracts.

While attacks on the “woke” peppered the conference, this too has become a joke term, used to signify anything Tories don’t like, which is most things apart from profit and exploitation.

Boris Johnson’s speech on the last day was no exception, best characterised as not very good light entertainment, containing lines like “Hereward the Woke.”

Even so, Johnson did use it to flag a few points that the Tories will continue to press on, not least their ideological culture wars.

Given that the culture secretary is now Nadine Dorries, a best-selling writer of pulp fiction, socialists might reasonably think there are more important things to focus on.

However the culture war, particularly its historical department, can have consequences.

Johnson said that he was “minded to ignore” those who claim Winston Churchill was a racist

He went on: “But as time has gone by it has become evident that this isn’t just a joke — they really do want to rewrite our national story … We really are at risk of a cancel culture, know-nothing iconoclasm.”

He concluded that the Tories would defend “Our history … not because we are proud of everything, but because trying to edit it now is as dishonest as a celebrity trying furtively to change his entry in Wikipedia.”

The reality is that racism was part of Churchill’s worldview and that is well documented, although there is much else that can also be said historically about him and Johnson, among others, has done so.

Johnson, who did not mention that October is Black History Month, struck entirely the wrong note about British history — and he did so deliberately.

Yet while this may seem objectionable but hardly unexpected from the Tories, there is a sharply practical side.

Official threats to reduce support for the National Trust and other heritage organisations because they want to look at the realities of Britain’s imperial past continue.

While Johnson continues the mantra that statues of historical figures, no matter how racist, must stay up, the constant refrain of Oliver Dowden, now Tory Party chairman, no statues marking figures who stood up against racism have appeared.

One depicting Betty Williams, the first black headmistress in Wales, was erected in central Cardiff recently, but that was under the auspices of the Welsh Labour government.

In Wales black history is on the school curriculum, but not, of course, in England.

The impact of the disgraceful cut to universal credit is more pressing, but an understanding of British history remains important because it reflects not only the imperial society that the country was but, depending on how it is told, the kind of country Britain is now and will become.

There is a specific Tory purpose to all this. If black and ethnic minority people, working-class women, LGBT people, the disabled and others have no place in British history, then there is a delegitimisation in the present too.

In short, the Tories are trying to write people not just out of history but out of the future too.

It is Johnson who wants to cancel the bits of British history he finds inconvenient.

Socialist historians are in favour of telling the whole story and there is a good deal of research still required to do that, including the real history of black and ethnic minority people in Britain stretching back at least to the Tudors.

Keith Flett is a socialist historian.


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