Today
Fri 7 May 2021

Hardeep Matharu reports on how the history of the English countryside has turned into a dangerous battleground as various forces try to provoke an uncivil culture war 

The ‘anti-woke’ agenda of the Government and right-wing media is resulting in threats to the safety and careers of female academics, a historian involved in setting the record straight about British heritage’s colonial links has warned.

Professor Corinne Fowler, of the University of Leicester, told Byline Times that, following sustained attacks on her work, she has reported three incidents of threats to the police, while a project she has led to teach school children about the imperial history of buildings in their local area has been investigated by MPs in an attempt at political intimidation.

“I consider it to be a worrying level of interference with intellectual freedom,” she said.

Prof Fowler came to the attention of politicians and the right-wing media after co-editing a report by the National Trust, published last September, detailing how 93 of the buildings in its care have links to colonialism and/or slavery. The report was jumped on by those keen to further the ‘culture wars’ because its list included Chartwell – Sir Winston Churchill’s family home.

The academic said the timing of the report’s release – in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and the tearing down of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol – meant that it became a “political football”, dominated by a “very emotional response” in which factual historical discussion was denounced as the ‘rewriting of history’.

“Sadly, what Brexit has taught us is that you can make political capital out of dividing people,” Prof Fowler said. “The most important thing about this is not to weaponise history. These kinds of interventions actually shut down the possibility of having sensible conversations because it all becomes polarised and politicised. I don’t think that anybody of any political persuasion should be using history as a way of manipulating public opinion. It’s worrying when national pride gets mixed up with historical fact.”

As has been seen elsewhere in public life in a ‘post-truth’ age, historical fact is being held hostage to irrational, unevidenced feeling.

“Facts should not be given equal status to opinion,” the academic said. “Historians write history, that’s what they do. When new evidence comes to light about East India Company connections or the slavery business and how that, for example, shaped philanthropy and philanthropic giving in this country, we then adjust our view of the past accordingly, as led by the evidence. 

“It’s good to have conversations about how to interpret certain facts that come to light but I don’t think the basic, fundamental facts should be open for discussion. That’s dangerous. Opinion is given too much sway and we end up having quite irrational conversations about history which are not led by the evidence or guided by facts.”


Historians as Enemies

Taking its cue from Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ movement in the US, Boris Johnson’s anti-woke crusade is well underway – carrying forward the divisions laid down by Brexit, which for years was preceded by stories of ‘bendy bananas’ signifying Britain’s imprisonment at the hands of the EU. 

Another absurd but emotional narrative is now being developed around the term ‘woke’ – originally a reference to those working to eradicate social and racial injustices, but now repackaged into a project of denunciation of anyone considered unpatriotic, ‘leftie’ or criticising structural ills in Britain. In many ways, it is the clearest modern expression of the old colonial ‘divide and rule’ presided over by the British Empire – to devastating effect – of which the Prime Minister is so beloved.

As with Brexit, it seeks to divide along identity lines. How Britain sees itself, its past and ‘values’ is a key battleground.

The strategy was brazenly on display recently in a Telegraph article entitled ‘We Will Save Our History From Woke Militants’. In it, Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick said that “there has been an attempt to impose a single, often negative narrative which, not so much recalls our national story, as seeks to erase part of it” by “a ‘cultural committee’ of town hall militants and woke worthies”. The piece announced a change in the law to ensure that planning approval will be required before historical monuments are removed.

Reports in the past week that the Government will be conducting a review into “left-wing extremism” and attempts by far-left activists to “hijack” political movements such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion contain echoes of the same.

But, backing up Government ministers is much of the press, with the anti-woke agenda now crystallising around the launch of the forthcoming GB News channel. This week, journalist Andrew Neil said he is launching it “because I believe the direction of news debate in Britain is increasingly woke and out of touch… GB News will be proud of our country, even when revealing its shortcomings and its inequalities. Our default position will not be to do Britain down at every turn”.

Aside from the fact that much of Britain’s media landscape is dominated by newspapers with tendencies to the right, Neil’s words reek of hypocrisy for another reason.

“I’ve had hundreds of hostile articles written about me, I’ve had my work misrepresented, I’ve had threats, I’ve got police reports, I’ve had all kinds of problems and attempts to intimidate me at a political level,” Prof Fowler told Byline Times. “How is that not closing down discussion, how is that not ‘cancel culture’? 

“As soon as you slap a label on someone it’s an excuse not to listen to something really interesting they might have to say, whether or not you agree with them politically. The woke term is a particularly annoying one because it implies that someone is politically biased and therefore can’t be trusted.”

One of the articles referencing Prof Fowler in the wake of the National Trust report suggested precisely this – with the headline of the Mail Online piece declaring: ‘National Trust is Accused of Recruiting “Biased” Team of Academics to Probe its Properties Links to Empire and the Slave Trade’. It included a photo of her in a personal context and details of the other female historians who had co-edited the report.

She is worried “that there’s so much hatred being projected at women in public life” and fears it is part of a wider project to rollback progressive wins.

“There is a pattern, an international pattern, across Europe, Australia and the US of trying to discredit academics, particularly female academics, but also climate scientists and increasingly historians of empire,” Prof Fowler said. “And that’s all happening in the context of nationalism.

“It’s not that journalists shouldn’t be critical, it’s their job to be critical, but when they are running inaccurate, misleading or hostile articles about the work, they’re just fuelling a hostile environment for intellectual curiosity. Intellectual freedom really matters and name-calling is never helpful, ever.

“The problem is that, for every hostile Daily Mail article, there are about 300 or so threats that come to me personally on the basis of that coverage. There’s a lot of anger and suffering around at the moment and it’s not okay to parade historians in front of people as some kind of enemy when all they’re doing is their job. We should be, yes, critical; yes, sceptical; but not hostile or demeaning.

“I’m not saying I’ve been intimidated by it because I haven’t, I’m not going anywhere, but that’s not for everybody. That level of threat and intimidation is not something that everybody would choose for their own sanity to withstand. You shouldn’t have to be super resilient to be a woman in public life. 

“I’m very concerned that we’re going to rollback progress in terms of us trying, genuinely trying, to level the playing field for people of colour, for people with disabilities, for women and on LGBT rights. If you have such a hostile environment and you’re supporting an environment where it’s okay to attack women, it’s okay to attack people of colour, and it’s okay to attack academics, then how can you have a civilised society which isn’t bitterly divided and polarised?

“That’s my real concern – a lack of respect, openness and ability to learn and grow as a society, together, no matter what our political views.”


Taking the Countryside Back

Prof Fowler has no desire to contribute to the worrying climate being fuelled through the culture wars.

She believes that “unconditional respect for all detractors”, not concessions on historical facts, is required: “You can’t have a meaningful conversation with people if you’re hostile to them because they don’t immediately see what you’re driving at.”

The academic would like to see history being explored through a local lens – as she does with her Colonial Countryside project with schools – as well as more initiatives such as University College London’s Legacies of British Slave Ownership which allow people to personally engage with Britain’s colonial past.

She describes her new book, Green Unpleasant Land, as an “important intervention on our countryside and Englishness”. Inevitably, it has been subject to ridicule by elements in the right-wing press.

“For 400 years, the countryside has been closely connected with ideas of Englishness,” she said. “Whether that’s working-class rural Englishness and farming, but it’s also this idea of the rural idyll and ‘Arcadia’ –  these sorts of ideas which have been written about by poets for hundreds of years.”

The real question is why does such work by a historian – not keen to attract any public attention on a personal level – provoke such a warped reaction? Exactly who or what is she attacking?

On 6 January, Donald Trump told his supporters that they had to “show strength” to “take our country back”; that nothing less would suffice. They later stormed the US Capitol, carrying the Confederate flag through the halls of American democracy as if like a dagger through its heart.

We have seen where a manipulated idea of a country, its history, and what it stands for can lead. We turn a blind eye to the deeper, darker project sitting beneath the ‘anti-woke’ culture wars here in Britain at our peril.

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