Rewatching history

To crown it all

I have recently finished watching The Crown. It still feels strange to have watched a show about the Royals, not least because I am not a fan and I had assumed the show was for their supporters. Instead I found myself drawn in, not so much by the story lines or characters, but the actors’ impersonations of historical figures. At times this is uncanny. Joshua O’Connor’s mannerisms as Prince Charles are unnerving. Other times it is less the accuracy than the enthusiasm. Gillain Anderson deserves an Emmy for her virtuoso performance as Margaret Thatcher.

But I was also drawn in by the comments of Oliver Dowden, the UK Cultural Secretary, who demanded that the series have a “health warning” in case viewers mistake it for a documentary. At the time, a lot of historians responded pointing out the show was clearly billed as a drama, starring famous actors. I felt this missed an important point, which is that for a lot of people history is not something read from books but taken from film, TV or video games, or half remembered from school. The distinction between historical fact and fiction is not always clear, especially if you do not have a solid grounding in the period. This is a topic that interests me in terms of the period that I study: the reception of the ancient world, how this informs people’s understanding and how this changes over time. I also think that some historians expect a level of investment and scholarly rigour from members of the public that is not even ubiquitous in academia.

But really it struck me that Dowden’s comments were not so much about the show presenting itself as fact, but rather the stories it chose to tell. I also had an inkling from his anger that it didn’t make the Tories look good. So I gave it a go.

Since watching, the one aspect of the show I have found fascinating is its political neutrality.  So far six of the Queen’s Prime Ministers have been substantial characters in the show. They are shown as flawed people whose emotional lives define and shape them much more than their politics. We know more about Eden’s health problems than his military aggression against Egypt during the Suez Crisis or Wilson’s awkward friendship with the queen rather than his fascinating trade union reforms. People with completely different political views can watch the show and enjoy it for similar reasons, even if they take different things from it. 

Margaret Thatcher is presented as a complex character, with some very positive aspects to her personal character but politically dogmatic, arrogant and uncaring about the suffering she inflicts on the world. The supposed benefits of her premiership are never shown (although this is perhaps the same for the other PMs). The show is about the relationships between the Queen and Prime Minister and within the Royal Family.

Our Friends in Windsor 

There is something oddly clinical about the show’s unwillingness to engage with the politics of the period. I would compare it with Our Friends in the North. Set in the Northeast, it covers four friends across a similar period (1964 to 1995) and explores a few subjects: housing, the fall out of empire (especially the Rhodesia question), the coal mines and the Labour Party. It evokes a world at once close knit and expansive, interconnected and falling apart at the seams. 

Fictionalising historical events is tricky, not least because everyone knows how it will end. How do you create dramatic tension or threat if everyone knows that the ship is going to hit the iceberg. Nevertheless, the world of Our Friends in the North is one of hope, where characters have a freedom of sorts. Instead The Crown depicts a claustrophobic world of dusty halls, controlled by stuffy mandarins following arcane court protocol. 

The Cultural Secretary steps into the fray

Since watching the series, I wondered why the Cultural Secretary would start what is essentially a pointless debate: one with little strategic gain if won, but with the risk for a lot of reputational damage. Sure the Tories come across like a bunch of bastards, but everyone knows that anyway. It is their raison d’être

Dowden’s struggle is not against the show itself. Rather he wants to create a culture war, a ‘war on woke”. For people who don’t know woke means being “alert to injustice in society, especially racism”. It has since been re-appropriated by UK politicians as a derogatory term. Now no one’s saying that Oliver Dowden and his like are racist, just that they are strongly opposed to people who are themselves opposed to racism for principled reasons, which is of course different, as many commentators might say, for legal reasons. 

Alongside the attack on the Crown, Dowden has also inveighed against the removal of a line from Rule Britannia (“Britons never will be slaves”) from the last night of the Proms. He will also tell cultural organisations they must must “defend our culture and history” and cannot “do Britain down”. This is not an empty threat, given the current situation where a lot of cultural organisations are suffering from funding cuts on the one hand and the drop in visitors due to the coronavirus pandemic. Apart from this, I struggle to identify what else he has done during the last year.

At the same time, other policies are being introduced including a new laws to protect free speech on campus, an issue that has been called a chimera by one leading historian. This law will affect Students Unions more than history departments, but is often tagged together.

The Tories are  hoping to create a narrative that ‘British History’ is being ‘cancelled’ or to use another word, wiped out, a theory that is not coincidentally only one step away from racist replacement theory. The processes and actions that politicians like Dowden complain against have little to do with wiping out history. 

Media coverage focuses on the removal of statues to slave traders. Firstly, statues are not history. I would also argue that these acts actually make this part of history more prominent. Probably everyone has walked past a statue without going on to read the wikipedia entry about the person. The act of re-evaluating who we as a society commemorate publicly and removing statues of those people whose values do not align with our own can make parts of our history more prominent. The scene of crowds pulling down a contested statue to a Bristol slave trader, put up in 1894, has made people more aware of his name and the evil acts he perpetrated.  You can not learn about the slave trade and the British Empire without growing angry.

It is telling then that the same commentators are more incensed about the National Trust exploring and discussing the links between the slave trade and the country house properties they oversee, or the British Museum’s printing out a plaque outlining Hans Sloane’s links to the slave trade. This is the opposite of cancelling history. This is history being made. There is something bitterly ironic to see the same braying commentators who bang on about ‘cancel culture’ including this reevaluation of history personages. 

History is often treated as a definable quality like oil. You head to a library, read the books and extract a crude oil which can then be refined by nice prose or fancy costumes. This is not history. History is a changeable quality. It is recreated from evidence, which is often fragmentary or flawed and which can change due to things such as technology. It is always contested and debated over. Adding additional evidence bases and new evidence is essential to good history. Therefore we must see the Tories’ actions as dangerous and not just to history.

Do the Tories even really care about statues or history? Probably not. It’s all about distracting people from the utter and undeniable incompetence of the UK government. Over the last year they have roundly shown that they are unable, or unwilling, to either listen to the advice of experts or to learn from their mistakes. For much of the last year, their only success has been fast tracking contracts worth millions to friends and funders. In Boris Johnson we have one of the most lazy, duplicitous and self-serving Prime Ministers ever. The one trick he has learnt is to use racist dog whistles to rouse his base, a move which is increasingly dangerous. That is what the history debates are about. 

I for one am looking forward to see how he and his disastrous government are portrayed in the Crown.