Why Boris Johnson mustn't rewrite British history

Boris Johnson has claimed that Britain is the birthplace of democracy – it isn't, says historian Peter Mandler

Peter Mandler

Boris Johnson can't be allowed to rewrite Britain's history, says Peter Mandler

In Parliament yesterday, while fumbling to explain why Britain’s Covid death rate has been so much higher than Germany’s or Italy’s, the prime minister fell back on an old historical trope. Britain, he said, was “a freedom-loving country, and if you look at the history of this country over the last 300 years, virtually every advance from free speech to democracy has come from this country.” 

Quite apart from the question of how to calculate the trade-off between freedom and death, what was characteristic about this response was the way in which it drew on cherished stereotypes about Britain’s “unique” historical trajectory as the fount of liberty and democracy since – well, as stereotypes tend to suggest, since the dawn of time.

Some years ago, I encountered these same cherished (and misplaced) stereotypes when Michael Gove was seeking to rewrite the national curriculum for history.

Not only did he want to fix that national curriculum firmly around “our island story” – the history of the wider world mainly impinging when, as in the case of Ireland and India, Britain occupied it – but his “island story” was also exactly this triumphant, whiggish one of Britain as the pioneer of liberty and democracy. From, if not the dawn of time, at least in Gove’s version, the Magna Carta. 

Apart from Ancient Greece, which appeared to have invented democracy for our benefit, Britain stood alone in pioneering liberty and democracy through the ages, from Magna Carta to the present day. 

Political influence on the history curriculum

At the time, I was president of the Royal Historical Society. I was shown a draft early in the process, on a non-disclosure basis. I can’t violate that confidence even if I wanted to, as the draft remains to this day protected by a long-forgotten password.

I do recall that at the time I objected to the overwhelmingly political orientation of the new curriculum – not party-political, but obsessed with the history of political institutions at the expense of all the other exciting things historians had been busy excavating over the past generation: industrialisation and deindustrialisation, urbanisation, family, sex and gender, migration and immigration, leisure and consumption, religion and secularisation, high culture and mass culture. 

But I objected even more strenuously to the whiggishness. How could we defensibly teach a curriculum that pretended that Britain was First Among All Nations in values and practices that are happily widespread across the world today? And, as a matter of fact, how could we sign up to a curriculum that claimed – as the prime minister has just done – that democracy “came from” Britain? 

Just as Anglo-Saxonists dripped scorn on the long discredited ideas of “Heptarchy” that infested the early drafts, I had to point out that Britain was not the first nation in Europe to enfranchise all its adults, or even all its adult males – it was pretty nearly the last. Some countries got there early – Denmark, France, Greece, Switzerland in the mid-19th century – most of the rest of Europe by the 1890s. Britain finally limped across the line in 1918, with a few other laggards like Hungary and the Baltics. 

Happily, some of the more indefensible claims about Britain First subsequently slipped out of later drafts. 

The writing and over-writing of history

Inevitably, politicians take a special interest in the history curriculum. They feel it is their possession, in a way that they don’t with maths or German. That has baleful effects on how we learn history – it becomes a political history, to the gratification of politicians but the exclusion of so much else in human life. 

Worse, it singles out one story to become the national story, thus ironing out all the glorious disagreement and diversity that characterises actual historical research by practising historians. (For a nice recent exposé of how this has been done to the Home Office’s Life in the UK test for new citizens, see Frank Trentmann’s article, How not to be an alien, in TLS, on 4 September.) 

We saw this flattening occur in the recent kerfuffles over statues and commemorations relating to empire and slavery. Wasn’t taking down a statue “revising” history? Of course it was! So was putting it up in the first place. History is being revised and multiplied and over-written every day, and long may it be so. 

If, as the prime minister says, we are the “land of liberty”, then surely we should be defending that plurality, and not trying to iron it out into one official narrative – not in tests for new citizens, not in the prime minister’s parliamentary banter, and certainly not in the school curriculum.

Peter Mandler teaches modern British history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He is president of the Historical Association and author of The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War, recently published by Oxford University Press

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