Fearfully pleased with himself, Tristram Hunt, the TV historian and Shadow Education Secretary, has worked himself up into a frightful lather over Michael Gove’s claim that leftish fictional depictions of World War One, such as Blackadder and Oh! What a Lovely War, have distorted our understanding of that bloody and titanic struggle.
Hunt condemns Gove’s article in the Daily Mail last week as “crass” and claims that he is rewriting the historical record and “sowing division” (not the kind of thing Labour politicians ever do) because he wants to exploit the War’s centenary to strike a patriotic posture, with UKIP on the rise and the European elections just around the corner.
What Gove actually wrote was this – a typically measured verdict by our cerebral Education Secretary:
“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.
“The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas…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.”
Gove goes on to argue that the war was just and that prime responsibility for the carnage lay with the German elites.
Hunt misses the point by insisting that the British Left needs no lessons in patriotism because at the time the Left supported the war – the point being that the matters in dispute are not the attitudes of 100 years ago but the attitudes towards the war today, as taught in schools and universities across the land and as depicted on the TV and cinema screen.
Gove’s objection is to the propagandist leftish view that a remote, brutal, upper class bunch of British imperialists callously and pointlessly sent millions of young men to their deaths in the fields of Flanders – all part of the Left’s wider agenda of robbing the young of any pride in their country’s remarkable achievements and pivotal role in fostering the values of liberal Western democracy.
The Education Secretary is right to insist that the origins and conduct of the Great War should be reassessed in a balanced and scholarly way and that as the anniversary approaches, fictionalised caricatures of the conflict should be seen as no more than a cartoon version of history.
Earlier last week, Gove was on BBC Radio 4 talking at some length about the new history curriculum he is introducing into schools this September.
A prime aim was to create some chronological order so that children did not learn a disconnected series of topics but acquired a narrative about British and world history.
As he put it:
“There’s children, including my own, who can’t remember, well perhaps didn’t even know in the first place, whether the Romans, Egyptians or the Greeks came in which particular order and whether or not the Vikings were their antagonists, protagonists, sons or daughters.
“So in that sense, giving people a sense of chronology is the high priority. But then it’s not enough simply to try to revive ‘1066 and all that’ for the 21st century.”
No doubt the causes of the “war to end all wars” will be part of these new lessons and that those favoured by Hunt (on which he is remarkably vague for a historian) will be given an airing.
Quite whether this fair-mindedness would apply the other way round is open to question. Hunt, like so many on the Left, gives the impression that his view – and those of his allies – is the only valid reading of the past.
His intolerance also reinforces the impression on the Right that our schools and universities – now mainly staffed by people on the Left with little pride in or affection for their country’s past – have become centres of politically correct indoctrination obsessed with modish issues like climate change, the slave trade and apartheid.
In an oblique way, Gove touched on this in his final remarks on Radio 4′ s Start the Week.
“The thing that I want people to have is an understanding of the past and an ability to analyse. And if students at the end of studying history come out as Maxists who hate the oppressive narrative of baronial rule that is the spine of English history, as long as they love history, I will be delighted.”Well, perhaps not delighted. But conservatives should face the fact that in so far as our education system succeeds in transmitting any values at all, they are currently of the fashionable, progressive Left, not the Right. Let’s hope the Gove version of history goes some way to correcting this insidious imbalance.