The controversy that has blown up over the Daily Mail’s attacks on Ralph Miliband raises two distinct questions about the way we use the past.
First is the matter of far it continues to influence the present. Should Ed Miliband be held accountable for his late father’s views? Should the Daily Mail continue to be tainted by its support for fascism and resistance to accepting Jewish refugees? This raises not only the possibility of apologising on behalf of our ancestors (a much contested issue in itself), but also the extent to which we are inevitably and irrevocably shaped by our historical inheritance.
It also highlights the idea that national identity can be held together by a straightforward story of the past (in this case oriented around the Cold War), in which you fall either on one side or the other. For Britain and capitalism. Or for socialism and Stalin’s gulags. But history and popular memory are both more complicated than that. As Michael Heseltine reminds us, there was a point when Stalin was Britain’s ally, and as Miliband’s biographer insisted, the man may have been a Marxist, but he was also a critic of Stalin and of the reality of Soviet communism. Moreover, as Simon Schama pointed out, by the Daily Mail’s reckoning, George Orwell must also have ‘hated Britain’, yet his writings reveal him to be an intense patriot.
Patriotism is not associated with an acceptance of the status quo. If it were, we wouldn’t have the campaigners for civil liberties and parliamentary democracy, for the abolition of slavery and for female suffrage that David Cameron lauded in his conference speech yesterday. This is the thing about true conservatism: it draws its former enemies in, weaving them into its version of national history. As John Vincent put it in a pamphlet called The Seven Voices of Conservatism (1991), ‘as a historical Party we know that history cannot be undone […]. We do not argue with the history of England: instead we absorb our national past.’ Not so the Daily Mail. Yet, this attempt by conservatives to claim a special role as guardians of the national past has also always been contested. Witness the attempts by the Communist Party in the late-1930s to lay claim to a lineage of radicals and reformers – including not only Chartists, Levellers and the leaders of the Peasants Revolt but also Sir Thomas More and Simon de Montford. This very act of appropriation is itself wonderfully evocative of British identity and the way in which it coils around and between ideologies.
Chris Brooke’s brilliantly titled post ‘Who do you think you are kidding Mr Dacre?’ describes all this far more beautifully that I ever could. He also makes clear that the reclamation of the national past from the Daily Mail and all who sail in her is about far more than including a few alternate histories in ‘Our Island Story’. It is far more combative, far more challenging than that. It is his final thought that has stuck with me over the past two days:
Finally, I’m thinking about the way that if Ed Miliband’s One Nation Labour is to amount to anything worthwhile […] then it has to be clear what it is against, as much as what it is for; to exclude and to marginalise and to stigmatise and to accuse, as well and as much as to include and to celebrate, to commemorate and to affirm.
And this evening I feel that I might really be able to get behind One Nation Labour, in a way that I really didn’t before.