Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Gove, Actually

I wish I could hibernate… until 2015. After a decent Christmas spent reading books about the 1930s depression – one largely devoid of political leaders of any colour abusing the poor – I emerged into 2014 only to be confronted by the worst aspects of British political and cultural life.

Item 1. Amateur Secretary of State for Education and professional troll Michael Gove whipping up the Daily Mail crowd by pointing out particular eminent historians and shaming them in public as leftwing propagandists laughing at the British dead of World War One. I couldn't help seeing Gove as Kim Jong-un and Richard Evans as his luckless uncle being dragged out of a meeting to be executed. Not only do Gove and Jong-un share rather smug expressions and believe themselves infallible, both men believe that history is a commodity to be deployed at one's own convenience, for political advantage.

Even without being a historian, Gove's Mail article is an obvious farrago of lies. It's titled 'Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?'. This is, of course, in the grand Mail tradition of using rhetorical questions as headlines, particularly ones which make untruthful assertions. What is 'the Left'? I'm leftwing, but would happily consign quite a few other soi-disant leftists to re-education camps for being capitalist running dogs. I'm damn sure there's no such thing as a singular Left. Then there's the 'insist'? As the kids say: 'citation needed'. Despite it not being my area, I read a fair amount of revisionist, post-modern and leftwing history (they aren't the same thing), and have never come across anyone mocking the war dead. My great-uncle Thomas spent Easter 1916 killing British soldiers and even he never mocked his enemies, let alone those on his own side. Anything else wrong with this headline? Well, millions of the dead weren't British, of course: quite a lot were German, French, Belgian, Irish, Australian, Indian, Chinese (yes), New Zealanders, Russian… the list goes on. 

Finally, what's a 'here' and what's a 'true hero'? Not every soldier is a hero. Surely some of them were cowardly, lazy or simply did their job without heroism? Unless we say that anyone conscripted and sent to the trenches was a hero. I'd agree with that – but that would require empathy for the German forces too, something to which I don't think Mr Gove could quite stretch.

Gove's main gripe is this:
Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.
I actually agree with him…for the first eight words. Anyone's understanding of any event is overlaid with perspectives. You'll view the war differently if your great-grandparents were cannon-fodder or as Viz magazine's Kitchener parody memorably put it 'sitting in a fucking great castle' on one side of a family dispute. Where Gove goes wrong is to assume that there is only one legitimate interpretation of World War One or any historical event. This is bonkers. But it's not just bonkers, it's sinister. I am genuinely frightened that a man who hopes to be Prime Minister thinks that an 'ambiguous attitude to this country' is a bad thing. For a start, what the hell does he mean by 'this country'? Does he mean Shakespeare/Cotswolds/Big Ben/shortbread/cathedrals/green and pleasant land, or does he mean the Britain of nuclear weapons, food banks, crashed banks, demonising immigrants, racist politicians, underfunded schools and illegal wars? Because I have to say, I'm pretty damn ambiguous about it myself. And so was the veteran poet who called Gove's clichés 'The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum set / pro patria moro'.

Or perhaps he means that you're an Leftist Enemy if you're ambiguous about World War One itself. If so, he's on shaky ground. I've got four degrees and spend a lot of time reading, and I'm damned if I could give a snappy answer to the question of why the UK fought that war, with those allies, in that way. What linked the nationalist murder of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo to a German invasion of France opposed by Imperial Russia and non-democratic Britain? I have no idea beyond a vague concept of webs of mutual aid agreements. Could anyone, with even an inkling of what the trenches were like, or the average life-expectancy, unambiguously recommend a chap sign up? If so, you're an inhuman monster.

But just for a moment, let's indulge Mickey. He likes 'patriotism, honour and courage'. Excellent. So let's hear him say a kind word for those other conscripts, in the other trenches. After all, if they were fighting for any other reason than compulsion, then surely 'patriotism, honour and courage' were what motivated them too.

Gove goes on to make a series of non-sequiturs which would have me reaching for the red pen, were I marking this excrescence. Firstly, there's this:
The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.
He starts with an unsourced assertion ('for many') and cites three texts, only one of which will be at all familiar to a contemporary audience. He's certainly wrong about Oh! What A Lovely War which actually present the political leadership on all sides as desperate to avoid war. He's also wrong about the 'Left-wing academics': it was the ferociously rightwing Tory MP and amateur historian Alan Clarke who wrote a book called The Donkeys, referencing the belief that the ordinary soldiers were lions led by the aforesaid beasts. Evans also lists a number of very conservative historians who think Britain should never have engaged in the war, and attack the way in which it was conducted. As to the idea that Richard Curtis and Ben Elton are lefty subversives: has he seen Love, Actually or anything either of them have done since 1985 or whatever?

And then we get on to the really Orwellian bit: a Government Minister smearing a historian:
Professor Sir Richard Evans, the Cambridge historian and Guardian writer, has criticised those who fought, arguing, ‘the men who enlisted in 1914 may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong’.
Even Gove's choice of quotes subvert his attack. Evans doesn't criticise the men at all. He speculates about their possible motivations and points out that their hopes were not realised and their political visions incorrect. Not once does he question their bravery, their sense of duty, their sacrifice. If anything, his point should make us feel even more deeply for them. Those men were used by two imperialist powers to fight a war which failed to benefit any of the survivors, and murdered millions. It didn't end war. It didn't enfranchise those who served or their civilian counterparts, it didn't defend freedom. As Evans points out elsewhere, Germany was rather more democratic than Britain or Russia.

And then there's this:
And he has attacked the very idea of honouring their sacrifice as an exercise in ‘narrow tub-thumping jingoism’. These arguments are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.
Apart from the hypocrisy of a man using the Daily Mail for an ad hominem attack on an academic while calling Evans a showman, it's a lie. Evans just plain did not attack 'the very idea of honouring their sacrifice': he attacked Michael Gove's plans for history education
I said his proposals for the National Curriculum were narrow tub-thumping jingoism
which isn't the same thing at all. Far from it, and Michael Gove is a dishonest liar to say so. Evans actually commended Conservative Culture Secretary Maria Miller for planning a commemoration far removed from Gove's asinine 'Engerland' approach. As for the  'sober' 'proper historical debate': we eagerly await Mr Gove's peer-reviewed original research.

Gove then moves on to the war as a whole:
The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war.
Plainly. Why?
The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.
As far as I can see, the British élite was little different: perhaps simply more successful. I don't know how comprehensive (excuse the pun) Mr Gove's expensive private education was, but I'd hope he's seen a globe with the British Empire filled in. Here it is in the 1920s:

And here's a map of the German Empire:

Who was 'aggressively expansionist'? Or is it Mr Gove's contention that the British Empire was a matter of turning up with crumpets and offering a consultancy service (or as Blackadder puts it, an Empire snatched from an enemy armed with sharpened mangos)? If so, perhaps he'd like to explain Ireland in 1916, the Kenyan and Malayan massacres, and a host of other murderous events. Perhaps, though, he's just an old-fashioned racist and doesn't really mind 'aggressive expansionism' as long as it's only against brown people (and the Irish). Perhaps where the Germans went wrong was to occupy nice European places? But despite Mr Gove, I strongly suspect that absolutely no Africans, Asians or anyone else sat around in 1914 thinking 'could be worse: at least it's not the Germans'. Though they'd be right to think that of the Belgians – allied to the British of course.

Then we reach this unhinged series of assertions:
And the war was also seen by participants as a noble cause. Historians have skilfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.
For feck's sake. Just because a person thinks they're fighting for a noble cause doesn't make it one. It might be. It might not be. Dying for something doesn't prove it right. As to the 'western liberal order': well maybe it looked like that from a bloody great mansion in the countryside, but for the working class I don't think it mattered a damn who was in charge. They still starved.

Oh sod it. I was going to mention Channel 4's demonisation of the poor in Benefits Street and all the other vile, cynical, dishonest attacks on this country's population perpetrated by the government just this week, but life's too short and I've got to go home and price up a dead man's CD collection. Toodle-pip.


Arthur Adams said...

As one those conservatives who think that the British Empire should have stayed out of the First World War, I think Gove went at it in the wrong way.

All the Left-wing criticism based on criticism of the late Alan Clarke is highly hypocritical. Alan Clarke's reasoning for opposition: British Empire is Global superpower in 1914, two world wars later, a second rate power on the world stage quickly slipping down the scale every year, is logically. Where as most lefty critics will use the same language as Clarke, yet these people believe the world is better now than it was in 1914, but to get rid of that world and be living in the current one, all those young men on all side had to died.

I don't think that was a price worth paying. The Left on the whole seems to think both ways.

GMS said...

Well said, Vole, although Gove (may his shadow ever diminish) is a sitting duck, one, it is true to say, would not even be palable with orange sauce!