Gove is right to highlight the way the Left spins our history

The Education Secretary is right to insist that the origins and conduct of the Great War be reassessed, says Nick Wood
Nick Wood is Chief Executive of MIP and former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party

Nick Wood is Chief Executive of MIP and former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party

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.

“I love reading the stories of heroes and heroines in the past and I am proud of the role that Britain has played on the world stage… However, there is a difference between my own personal enthusiasms and the responsibility that I have, or any politician would have.

“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.

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Nick Wood

Chief Executive at Media Intelligence Partners
Nick started MIP in 2004, having been the Conservative Party's Director of Communications and Chief Political Correspondent at The Times


  1. What rot. The fact is the vast majority of people fighting on our side had more in common with the people they were fighting against than the people they were fighting on behalf of – same is true of the German side.
    Gove proves Johnson true – Patriotism is the last resort of a scoundrel.

    • Similar rot. The same could be said of the Second World War – the vast majority of the soldiers fighting on both sides had more in common with each other than their leaders as well. That bears no relation to the reason the war was fought. Only a minority of German soldiers were members of the Nazi party – but they were still fighting under their direction. And few of the Allied armies were of the level of class or education that their leaders had. But how does that prove the war should not have been fought?
      Similarly, the reasons for the First World War are complex – and I don’t claim to be an expert. But dismissing them as rot because there was a similarity between the armies of both sides does not add any helpful facts to the debate.

      • I am dismissing Gove’s analysis and the ensuing hero worship from Mr Wood as rot. It is a simple, despicable act to hijack a painful event to make cheap political points. It falls at the first step of critical analysis – why commemorate the START of WWI?

        • Why commemorate the beginning of the First World War? Firstly, because that is what people do – we’ll celebrate, as opposed to ‘commemorate’ – if our treacherous politicians allow us – the end of the Great War, too. We should celebrate the beginning, too, but that’s a different argument.. Secondly, it was a momentous event (to put it mildly), that indirectly led to the Second World War and the refashioning of Europe. Thirdly, we won!

        • If you read what Mr Gove actually wrote, as was pointed out here, it is difficult to dismiss it as ‘rot’.
          I remember that my great grandfather (a guardsman who was invalided out) despised “Oh What a Lovely War”, and felt that it misrepresented his reasons for volunteering. He cited the atrocities that were committed by the Germans in Belgium as a major factor.
          Mr ‘Dam, are you not guilty of exactly the revisionism for which Mr Gove is, quite correctly, criticising Mr Hunt?
          …And we commemorate the beginning of the conflict because to wait until the end of the conflict would be to miss the opportunities to commemorate all the loss and all the heroism of those involved in a conflict that played such an important role in shaping the world in which we live.

    • If this was ‘rot’ then please explain why the British Army didn’t collapse the way the Russians did, and fought on despite the March 1918 offensive. And explain why the same Army was able to defeat the Germans in battle between August and October 1918.

      Furthermore, historians who read the correspondence of private soldiers in the British, ANZAC and Canadian forces have shown us that they did not see the Germans as ‘people like themselves’, but mortal enemies to be defeated. You can start by reading John Terraine’s works.

      Stop reading the ‘Socialist Worker’, and grow up.

  2. It is not entirely fair to blame left-wingers. Yes, “Oh What a Lovely War!” may have been developed by Joan Littlewood, but it used Alan Clark’s “The Donkeys”. Clark was a Conservative MP (and also a former army officer, which makes the military incomprehension displayed in his book truly astonishing). The introduction to Richard Holmes’ “Tommy” is enlightening on how, shortly after the Great War ended, a general view of its awfulness became all-pervasive even though it was at odds with the views of those involved during the war itself.

    Possibly left-wingers perpetuate that dubious, but generally accepted, myth which arose after the war, perhaps fuelled by general disillusionment in the late 1920s, but they did not create it and they have not been alone in perpetuating it.

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