A very generous and thought-provoking review by Scott Anthony of History, Heritage and Tradition has just been published in Twentieth Century British History. An extract is available here (subscribers can view the full text). The comparison it draws with Adam Curtis’ film The Attic is particularly interesting. I started writing from a similar position to Curtis – focusing on the extent to which Margaret Thatcher’s politics were driven by a nostalgic recreation of the national past. However, as the review points out, I ended up arguing much the opposite. Hers was not a conservative committment to the past for its own sake; it was a whiggish position which always asked ‘what can the past do for us?’ She had, in Maurice Cowling‘s words, ‘only a low-level, Neville Chamberlain-type conception of the spiritual glue which is one of the Conservative Party’s special needs.’
The implication of all this is that a lack of a deeper historical sensibility (as exhibited by so many contemporary politicians) is a problem. I certainly believe that the past can provide an important way of defamiliarising the present, of reminding us that things do not have to be as they are. Without this, we risk becoming stuck in an endlessly self-perpetuating present in which it is much harder to imagine other forms of politics. However, I’m not sure I am as committed to the view that ‘deeper historical self-knowledge must always be liberating’ as I may seem (and as the review suggests) -although I’m aware that most of my arguments seem to draw me in this direction. I’ve been quietly struggling with this tension for some time but need to reflect on it in a more sustained way. One way to do this would be through the question that Scott Anthony poses at the end of his review: ‘ is it simply the absence of “real” history in party politics the problem or is it the presence of something else?’ I’ll let you know when I have an answer…!