The politics of memory

Unless you’ve been living in a hermetically sealed room for the past few weeks, you’ll know that last Friday marked the 70th Anniversary of VE Day. Truth be told, I didn’t get to see much of the coverage of the commemoration parade itself, but from what I did manage to see of it, it seemed pretty well done, although I do empathise with those who argued it sometimes crossed the line into outright jingoism.

Anyway, whilst I was reflecting on the VE Day commemorations that I began to think about a related issue, but one which is rarely discussed outside academic circles: why do we choose to remember and commemorate certain events, but entirely neglect to commemorate others? To me, the question of what we choose to, if not forget, gloss over and ignore is just as important an issue of what and how we do choose to remember and commemorate, as more often than not, the former can reveal far more about a nation’s psyche and culture than the latter.

Sticking with the general World War Two theme, the Depression of the 1930s is a particularly pertinent example of this issue, as it’s a topic which is rarely discussed in its own right when it really deserves to be. Yes, we hear a lot about the Depression in the context of World War Two, and the Depression is frequently used by the media as a stick with which to measure our own economic situation. But beyond this? Nothing, and as I said mere sentences ago there really should be.

After all, the Depression was arguably one of the most devastating events of the twentieth century, not just in the sense that it acted as a precursor to World War Two, but devastating in the sense of the social and economic gulf it created between those areas whose economy relied on heavy industries. including the North of England, Scotland and Wales; and regions such as the south east, whose economy was geared towards light industries, the last of which were better equipped to react to the economic downturn. Furthermore, the Depression was arguably the death knell for classic liberal economics, and as such the event which triggered the formation of the post-war welfare state, and the fact it is not more widely discussed in popular history circles is rather bemusing.

Quite why this is, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because any programme about the Depression would have to address the uncomfortable fact that the economic disparities the Depression caused between the south-east and other regions of the United Kingdom were never really tackled, and as such could lead to calls for action to be taken in the present; or it could simply be that the Depression is generally classified as ‘economic history’, and the Beeb and other television networks believe the general public consider economic history too dull and dry to watch any programmes about it. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that there is much, much more to be said about, and that we can learn from, the history of the Depression, and the longer we continue to ignore it the worse off we will be as a nation.

However, for me the most fascinating example of this issue is the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. On the face of it, the abolition of the slave trade should be one of the events which define any popular narrative of British history. Not only is it one of the few times in history where Britain served as a definitive force for good in the world, it is possibly the only time where it enacted positive change despite the fact it was acting against its own interests.

By this measure, the abolition of slavery is an event which should be commemorated annually. So why isn’t it? It may have something to do with the fact that to do so would draw attention to the fact that more people are currently enslaved than at any other point in human history, and serve to highlight the fact that, for all its good intentions, in reality Britain never managed to put an end to the slave trade.

However, I think the answer lies in the fact that any commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade would also have to discuss the fact that, whilst Britain did eventually try and put an end to the slave trade, in the two hundred years before its abolition British merchants made a pretty handsome profit from trading in the misery and exploitation of others. Whilst Britain may have been the first nation to outlaw the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it was also the one which was responsible for developing and expanding it in the first place.

Furthermore, whilst the slave trade was abolished in 1807, slavery itself remained legal in British colonies until 1833; and even when slavery was later abolished the slaves themselves received no compensation or reparations whatsoever. As such, when looked at in its proper historical context, the abolition of the slave trade becomes more morally ambiguous, and it is this ambiguity which explains why it doesn’t occupy a more prominent role in our national consciousness.

These are just two examples, and certainly Britain is not unique in glossing over certain historical events. As Adam Hoschschild argues in his superlative King Leopold’s Ghost, there is rarely any public discussion in Belgium about the slave state established in the Congo by King Leopold II; and in France, the issue of Nazi collaboration is still a highly sensitive, if not taboo, topic.

However, it is still an issue we need to address, as whilst I would argue Britain is, overall, pretty good at having open and honest discussions about our past, in some areas we are still unwilling to do so. Why this is the case, I’m not sure, but I think it is largely due to the two issues I raised in the cases of both the Depression and the abolition of the slave trade, namely that certain topics can act as an uncomfortable mirror to contemporary society, or that by commemorating these events, we are often forced to deal with the more morally ambiguous elements of our past.

Whatever the reasons, to me what this issue highlights most is the importance of community focused history. Any commemorative events aimed at a national audience and planned at a national level will, by their very nature, be selective, both in the events it chooses to focus on, and the perspectives it chooses to incorporate, as they have to convey a narrative which will appeal to a broad audience, leading to one which prioritises simplicity over historical nuance.

Community focused history, however, doesn’t have to worry about these issues, and as such is free to produce historical accounts which focus on niche topics, and incorporate voices and perspectives which are ignored by national historical narratives. Yes, local history can be rather myopic, but at the same time it keeps alive events and issues that would have otherwise been forgotten, and if used correctly, these local accounts can be woven together to form a narrative which presents an issue in its full historical context.

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