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The Conservative Conception of History: Myth and Propaganda

A Complete Turkey

Most bibliographies are written for a market. Biographers, like Lady Antonia Fraser and David Starkey, make a living writing them. They sell because of the alleged fame or notoriety of the person being written about. Every year dozens of books are published on historical figures; kings, queens, literary figures and statesman. Some are turned into TV series where we are treated to historical gossip and intrigue by historians dressing-up in period costume.

For an example of this trite history writing, look no further than Jacob Rees Mogg's THE VICTORIANS: TWELVE TITANS WHO FORGED BRITAIN. The book is a biographical work, in which he discusses twelve influential British figures of the Victorian period as though the 19th century has to be designated with the name of an unremarkable monarch.

The book was dreadful history writing. One Tory, Simon Heffer, called it a "complete turkey". If you cannot find a Tory to defend another Tory's book in public then you must be in trouble.

The conservative historian, Dominic Sandbrook described the book as abysmal and soul-destroying. Writing in the SUNDAY TIMES, he said:

"No doubt every sanctimonious academic in the country has already decided that Rees-Mogg's book has to be dreadful, so it would have been fun to disappoint them...But there is just no denying it: the book is terrible, so bad, so boring, so mind-bogglingly banal that if it had been written by anybody else it would never have been published" (18 May 2019).
sanctimonious academics" who bought the book, thinking it was about a critical history of politicians and generals would have felt rightly cheated. The book can't be given away. No one wants it. Will it make it into paper back? At least Sandbrook got a free review copy.

As one wit said, if Jeremy Corbyn's politics was of the 1970s then Jacob Rees Mogg's politics was of the 1870s. The book was politically written as imperial nostalgia. It was a yearning for a lost British Empire of statesman, officers and imperialists who administered the Empire and benefitted from its violence and plunder.

The book was also a Manifesto for the fantasy politics of a post-Brexit British Empire where "entrepreneurs, free from Europe, were now going to pin Union Jacks across the globe through aggressive competitive free trade like their 17th and 18th century forebears.

Who was the book written for? Maybe it was written for a fictional audience of children from the nineteenth century working class. They were forced to read the lives of "Great Men" to improve their moral standing and to submissively doff their school caps to their betters?

After all, children in Britain, up to the end of the Second World War, were shown a world that was ostensibly coloured pink and were obliged to take part in Empire Day parades on the 24th May. Empire day was to remind children from the working class, that they formed part of a British Empire. They were taught they were the top dog. This regrettable thinking still forms part of the working class view of the world. In a recent You Gov poll, 59% of workers thought the British Empire was a force for good; something to be proud of (July 26 2014).

This is hardly surprising when Imperialist propaganda was so pervasive throughout the school system. In the early 20th school children were also encouraged to read books praising the "civilising force" of the British Empire, such H E Marshall's OUR EMPIRE STORY of 1908, a book still in print and avidly read, no doubt, by subscribers to the DAILY MAIL and DAILY EXPRESS. Children born after 1958 fortunately missed all the political poison of Empire and British exceptionalism. By the 1960s the sun had certainly set on the British Empire. It had ceased to be. It was no more. But it still dominates Tory thinking about British capitalism's place in the world and, unfortunately, it still finds support from a sizable section of the working class.

The Chartist General?

If the book was a "complete Turkey", it was also dishonest. General Napier, for example, one of the "Titans" mentioned in the book, was responsible for massacring thousands of people in the Punjab and looting the wealth when it took his fancy. He stole the Koh-I-Noor diamond which he then gave to Queen Victoria (the only female to be included in the book) to ingratiate himself in her favours. He also worked for the slave-ship traders, the East India Company. His view of Imperial diplomacy can be summed up in the following gem:

"The great receipt for quieting a country is a good thrashing first and great kindness afterwards: the wildest chaps are thus tamed". (THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF GENERAL SIR CHRLES JAMES NAPIER, Volume 3, page 34).

That said, it should be remembered that Napier headed 6000 troops to the North of England to meet the threat of a potential Chartist up-rising. The State's violent response to Chartism is as important to study as the Chartists themselves. At the time the Chartists were seen as dangerous revolutionaries by the government and ruling class. In fact the Chartists wanted, among their six demands, universal suffrage, an end to property qualifications to stand for parliament, paid MPs so that (male) workers could stand. Hardly "revolutionary", but it was nevertheless a threat to the privilege and private property of the ruling class.

Why Napier got the position to lead 6000 troops against the Chartists is puzzling. He had accused industrialists, in a book he wrote, of murdering children in the factories, he agreed with male suffrage and had much sympathy for the poor and for the demands made by the Chartist movement. These sentiments appear at odds with the political concerns of the government at the time. One recent historian, E. Beasley, (THE CHARTIST GENERAL 2016) suggested that he should be credited for the restraint he showed at one of the most dangerous times in the Chartist era. However, Napier had no qualms in using violence. Later, in Sind, he became notorious as a cynical and bloodthirsty imperialist with a habit for torching villages.

Despite his sympathy for Chartism what was the political reality for Napier. If the Chartists had risen up with arms (as they had in Newport in November 1839) what would Napier have done? He would have carried out his orders and crushed the revolt. To believe he would have militarily sided with the Chartists is pure fantasy.

Here is the reality. In 1839 he warned:

"We have the physical force, not they. They talk of their hundred thousands of men. Who is to move them when I am dancing round them with cavalry and pelting them with cannon shot? What would their 100,000 men do with my 100 rockets wriggling their fiery tails among them, roaring, scorching, tearing, smashing all that came near? And when in desperation and despair they broke to fly, how would they bear five regiments of cavalry careering through them? Poor men! How little they know of physical force!" (taken from the diaries of Sir Charles Napier ) http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/chartism/soldier.htm

The Northern Chartists made the right decision against confronting 6000 well armed soldiers, cavalry and cannon. The Newport rising was easily crushed. 22 chartists were killed and the leaders of the rebellion charged with “treason” and were sentenced to be hung drawn and quartered but the sentence was later commuted to transportation. This was the last large-scale armed rebellion against the ruling class in Britain. The failure of armed revolt had a huge bearing on the thinking of future socialists who saw in the parliamentary vote, once the suffrage had been secured, a more reasonable revolutionary route for a socialist majority to gain political power and establish socialism.

There is a bronze statue in honour of Napier on the southwest corner of Trafalgar Square. Come the socialist revolution that bronze will be one of the first statues to be thrown unceremoniously into the Thames.

The British Empire: Brutal Aggression and Naked Greed

Rees Mogg would have us look back to the days of the British Empire with pride. But there is little in the brutal oppression and naked greed with which it was built that deserves our respect.

The brutal oppression of the British Empire was highlighted in Richard Gott's book, BRITAIN'S EMPIRE: RESISTANCE, REPRESSION AND REVOLT. He too discusses General Napier, though not as a "hero" but as a "brigand". He quotes Henry Pottinger, an Anglo-Irish soldier and colonial administrator who became the first Governor of Hong Kong. Pottinger said that General Napier's treatment of the inhabitants of the Punjab was: "the most unprincipled and disgraceful that has ever stained the annals of our empire in India" (p 342). And, of course, when Pottinger refers to "our Empire" he is not referring to the working class in Britain. The working class own nothing except their ability to work.

Gott showed that violence was a central, constant and ubiquitous part of the making and keeping of the British Empire. He wrote:

"...Britain's Empire was established, and maintained for more than two centuries, through bloodshed, violence, brutality, conquest and war. Not a year went by without the inhabitants of Empire being obliged to suffer for their involuntary participation in the colonial experience. Slavery, famine, prison, battle, murder, extermination - these were their various fates" (p.1).

Gott, unlike Rees Mogg, showed the resistance and rebellion to British rule across the empire and the repression that followed. Unfortunately he did not have time to discuss the collaborators and those who went on to rule the countries in the post British Empire. After 1947, for example, the success of Indian nationalism only replaced one ruling class with another, which led to one million deaths, the formation of three separate capitalist states and decades of hostility in the region. That sad history still has to be written from a Marxist perspective. History and class struggle does not end with the demise of the British Empire.

Resistance, rebellion and revolt are not to be found in the fictional history of conservative politicians and the Conservative History Group they follow. It certainly does not appear in THE VICTORIANS. The conservative conception of history is nothing more than myth and propaganda. A useful lie.

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