Prospect Magazine: Roman Britain, Mary Beard, and the battle for control of the past

Published in Prospect Magazine website 11 August 2017.

As bizarre as our political discussion has become in recent times, it’s still unusual to see the history of Roman Britain on the frontline of debate. But last week, an ugly online row broke out after alt-right apparatchik Paul Joseph Watson seized upon a BBC Teach video that showed a dark-skinned man in Roman Britain, claiming it was an “historically inaccurate” attempt to force 21st century multiculturalism on Britain’s ancient past.

Acclaimed historian Mary Beard waded in, suggesting the representation of some ethnic diversity might be “pretty accurate,” and what followed was a dispiriting culture war as once-esteemed philosophers threw cheap insults at Cambridge classicists, all accompanied by a whirlpool of right-wing trolls swirling on the touch-lines. All roads were once again leading to Rome.

After the storm had calmed, I spoke to Beard to reflect on the events. Was she surprised at the backlash? “Personally yes,” she tells me. “I defended a BBC kids video from the attack of an alt-right commenter; then the heavens opened. In retrospect, I can begin to see a nerve was touched.

“I do come away, though, thinking: if an elderly lady academic gets this shit for saying that there were people of colour in Roman Britain, what on earth must be thrown at, for example, young black men every day? It is hard to avoid the conclusion of racism here!”

It is probably fair to say that the offended parties weren’t motivated by a new-found interest in policing ancient historical authenticity. It’s difficult to imagine Watson and his followers taking issue with the video had it incorrectly featured, say, anachronistic water irrigation systems, as opposed to a black man. (Of course, genetic research by the likes of Adam Rutherford suggests that people of African origin probably were present in Roman Britain—as if Beard’s claim were in any doubt). The spat is a classic expression of insecurity by people upset that the past doesn’t necessarily match their perceptions of it—albeit an extreme version, extending to two-millennia-old history. But what drives this insecurity? Why do corrections from historians provoke such anger? And is the problem getting worse?

I put the first question to Beard. “That is a huge issue and there is no single answer,” she says. “A lot of it [does] stem from insecurity, and a distrust of people like me telling them that the history of their country is not as they had always imagined it. Yet, it is also clear—if I have judged the Twitter participants correctly—that that insecurity is being fanned by people on the hard, alt-right.”

As Beard suggests, our attitudes to the past are shaped by a collective amnesia about Britain’s interaction with other cultures dating back many centuries. This view is reinforced by the culture we consume: a rare strand of criticism for Christopher Nolan’s dazzling epic Dunkirk this summer was the accusation that it ignored the contribution of Indian soldiers to the evacuation.

“Growing up we’re hugely influenced by the films we see, the television we watch, the books we read, the culture we grow up in—the way the past is personified or projected,” Greg Jenner, the TV historian behind CBBC’s hugely popular Horrible Histories series, told me. “Quite a lot of it actually comes to us through mediated images and that means we have a certain understanding of Britain’s history.”

Like the producers behind the BBC Teach video, in his next work, Jenner’s team is “now trying to a do a little bit more global stuff, we’re trying to put things in perspective.” He cites an episode on Magna Carta, in which “at the same time as King John was running around doing his Magna Carta stuff, we also did a sketch about Genghis Khan, and what was happening in Asia at the same time.”

He’s not alone. Beard, alongside David Olusoga and Simon Schama, is one of the presenters of BBC Two’s Civilizations, due to air next year, which hopes to “tell the story of art from the dawn of human history to the present day, for the first time on a global scale.”

Jenner says positive schemes like this are motivated by two things: the latest trends in scholarship, and an awareness of the global world we now live in. “As a historian, I’m pleased we can be doing more of a global history because the world that the kids are living in is globalised. Everyday they’re going to hear about global news, and if they haven’t got any comprehension of those nations and cultures then it’s all a bit bewildering.

“What we’re trying to do with Horrible Histories is just give them the tiniest little bit of understanding about the interaction between British history and global history. Because actually the history of Britain is the history of interactions, of trade, of immigrants and emigrants, of people coming and going, of ideas and, of course, of the British empire and its impact on the world.”

Global approaches aren’t just changing the way history is taught in videos aimed at seven-year-olds. They’re shaping university syllabuses, too: next year, I’ll be one of the first students to take Oxford’s new global history course which, building on campus campaigns such as “Why is my curriculum so white?,” attempts to place European history within a wider, global, framework.

The move is “generated by a deeper understanding that we live in a global world in terms of the movement of people, commodities and ideas,” explained Oxford University’s Professor of Modern European History, Robert Gildea. “Global history methods explore connections between the global and the regional, national or local. This is not the same as ‘world history.’ You could write a global history of Bristol, looking at the slave trade, or the East End of London, looking at migration, or of Oxford, exploring global networks of ideas.”

But again, Oxford’s move faced a fierce backlash, with parts of the media accusing the History Faculty of caving in to political correctness. “Angry responses,” Gildea suggested, “may have something to do with a mistaken view that global history aims to unseat the study of British history from its central position, or is a post-colonial bid to prioritise ‘non-white’ history.”

As the emotionally-charged Roman Britain dispute highlights, a significant challenge will come when these approaches are applied to the way we think about British history. “Actually, I don’t think the task is so hard as this Twitterstorm makes it appear,” Beard tells me. “One of the best days I had in the last few years was going to a country fete in rural Sussex with David Olusoga, when he was making his Black British TV programmes. We took a photo of the reconstruction of black Beachy Head Woman who had been excavated nearby, and we tried to get into a discussion about her at this all-white occasion. It was fun and very cheering—people were surprised, curious, retrospectively welcoming.”

The importance of providing a global view of history is more important than ever. Around the world, insecurities surrounding identity are encouraging fanatical leaders to rewrite history to fit their own political needs. From the distortions of Hungarian dictators to the imperial delusions driving Brexit, it seems who owns the past—and for what purpose—is more important than ever.

Yet the historians I speak to are adamant that these battles are nothing new. “It’s always been contested,” says Jenner, “I mean the past is political—as Orwell said, ‘who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past.’ It’s always been hugely a battleground between ideological opponents.”

These battles often centre around questions of national identity, Gildea argues. “National identity has been threatened by global forces in recent times and its perceived fragility has resulted in attempts to reinforce it. This can be seen in Britain and the USA, Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Russia.”

An interest in global history can allow researchers and academics to counter some of the myths of our history which, as the Roman Britain backlash shows, persist. Through new ways of learning about history, we can begin to question some of the false political narratives we are being fed. As Beard says: “We should not live with a glaringly false view of the past, as snowy white. Relooking at the story of Roman Britain helps us re-examine the myths we have about ourselves.”

Tim Farron interview: “This is the very moment that the country needs a bold and competent opposition”

Published in Cherwell 5/4/2017

“Who will speak for liberal Britain?” It’s the question which is shaping our politics, and which the provocative front page of this week’s New Statesman posed. The collapse of the Labour Party as an effective opposition, it posited, is spoken of as a self-evident fact. The SNP speak only for Scotland’s interests. The debate which will define British politics in years to come is to be had within the Conservative party. With Theresa May triggering Article 50 last week to usher in a hard Brexit, an effective, scrutinising opposition has never been so necessary—and so absent.

So, one may ask, what of the only party with the word “liberal” in its name? The Liberal Democrats may have just nine MPs, but when I spoke to an energetic Tim Farron a few weeks ago, he was clear on their ambitions to fill the opposition-shaped void.

Does he believe the Lib Dems can speak for the progressive centre of UK politics? “Yes, absolutely. On a personal level I like Jeremy Corbyn, he’s a good guy and sticks to his principles. But his catastrophic leadership of the Labour party means that they are currently providing no opposition whatsoever to this nationalist government’s desire to force a hard-Brexit on this country.

“The Labour leadership wrote a blank cheque to the Conservative government on Brexit when they forced the vast majority of their MPs to vote with the Government (to trigger Article 50 in February). I believe that history will judge them harshly for their failure to stand firm in defence of future generations of Britons who will suffer as a result.

“This is the very moment that the country needed a bold and competent opposition.”

Can the Lib Dems provide it? Faced with the weakness of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, many have called for a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. In fact Farron, despite previously labelling Jeremy Corbyn as “spineless”, “incompetent” and “toxic”, has called for a new consensus of “progressives working together”.

“During the referendum, I really enjoyed spending time campaigning with progressives in other parties,” Farron tells me. “There are many of us with much more in common than what divides us.” He cites the Green Party leader Caroline Lucas’ decision to endorse Sarah Olney, the Lib Dem candidate, in the Richmond Park by-election. Olney went on to overturn Zac Goldsmith’s 23,000 Conservative majority.

For Farron, finding new alliances is one of his imminent priorities. He says how he is “deeply concerned that as things stand, with the situation in the Labour Party, that we could now be landed with a Conservative government for a generation unless an attractive, strong and united progressive alternative can be presented.”

He says he is aware of “conversations happening in constituencies between different groups.” And beyond this, reports are surfacing of talks between Lib Dem staff and Conservative and Labour moderates. Last week, Anna Soubry said she would consider joining a new “moderate, sensible, forward thinking” party.

Farron says he plans to “work alongside people who share many of our values, who are progressives, who want a Britain that is both successful and fair, who want the UK to be at the heart of Europe. The form of any cooperation is yet to be clear, but I am determined that there should be cross-party conversations that could lead to this kind of cooperation and hopefully prevent a conservative hegemony in this country lasting many, many years.”

Yet if opinion polls are to be believed, such a progressive pact of Labour, Liberals and Greens would do little to shift the debate which is currently taking place between the centre-right and far-right. A recent poll showed the combined total of the UK’s centre-left and left comes to little over 40%, while the Tories and UKIP would gain 57% of the vote.

It is perhaps for this reason that Farron sees the grassroots mobilisation of a new movement as his other main objective. “My contribution to this must be to build the Liberal Democrats so that we can ensure that this movement comes about.” He thinks they are making “good progress” on this front. Indeed, a post-Brexit bounce may be fuelling projections which suggest the Lib Dems will win 100 council seats in local elections next month.

Galvanizing the Liberal Democrats’ brand—still bruised and hollowed-out from their years in coalition—must surely be an essential priority for any electoral success. Amongst students, the issue of tuition fees (which Farron himself voted against), continues to fracture the potential for any broad-based support.

Does Farron believe it is possible to win back their support? “Yes, and it’s already happening. Our party membership has grown by over 33,000 since last June, and many of these new members are young people and students.”

He believes that Europe has changed everything, and sees it providing the possibility for a revival. “As you know 18 to 24 year olds voted overwhelmingly in favour of Remain last June. It is you, the youth of Britain, who will have to live with the fateful consequences of this Government’s choice to pursue a hard Brexit more than anybody in Parliament or the Government front bench.

“Students understand that the Lib Dems won’t accept the damage that this course of action will do to the future of young people in this country.”

But Farron is wary of becoming defined as a solely pro-EU party. “Students like our progressive stance on other issues important to them, such as mental health, climate change and welcoming refugees into the country”, he adds.

Farron says he “wholeheartedly supports” the findings of the Higher Education Policy Institute’s recent report on university students’ mental health. He suggests increased funding for counselling services, changes to allow students to register with a GP in two places, and the provision of necessary materials for staff in regular interaction with students.

“We all need to do more to encourage open conversations about mental health—in universities and elsewhere—to tackle the stigma and encourage more people to seek help.”

The challenges facing self-styled “progressives” like Farron are not unique to Britain. From Democrats in the US to moderate opponents of Putin’s kleptocracy in Russia, liberals are struggling to articulate a narrative which can convince displaced electorates. But gaps in the resurgent nationalism may be appearing. The anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders was seen off in the Dutch elections last month, whilst the centrist French presidential favourite Emmanuel Macron is displaying how liberals can use unconventional structures to take on the far-right.

If opposition to the unexpected post-liberal turn in world politics is giving progressives new unity, Farron is clearly optimistic about this shift. He is firm on how the UK should approach Donald Trump’s “racist and inhumane policies.”

“President Trump appears to have chosen to turn his back on the shared culture of civilisation and tolerance which has underpinned the post-war relationship between the UK and the US,” he says. “We should not be seen to celebrate this or to simply shrug our shoulders about it.”

He offers a chilling condemnation of Theresa May’s apparently welcoming policy towards the US President. “Donald Trump is a successful businessman. In his book ‘The Art of the Deal’ in 1987, he explained that the best time to do a deal is when the other guy is desperate for a deal. It seems very clear to me that having chosen to sever our ties with civilised democracies in Europe our Prime Minister is now desperate for a deal with the USA, irrespective of whether it will do Britain any good and irrespective of whether it will damage Britain’s record of standing up to persecution, racism and tyranny.”

It is obvious from Farron’s words that he believes the necessary base exists for new movements, but how far, or for how long, such a party or grouping could appeal beyond leafy Richmond suburbs remains unclear. Targeting the Remain vote is an understandable short-term tactic for a party with eight MPs, but as the salience of the issue is lost, and the Lib Dems become defined as a pro-EU party, there is little to suggest they could speak as a nationwide opposition. And so, the question remains: who will speak for liberal Britain?

“Britain needs a progressive party that is serious about power and positive about Europe,” Farron says. “Liberal Democrats are ready to take up the mantle.” We will see.

Chuka Umunna interview – “I want to play a big role in the next Labour government”

This interview was published in Cherwell 17/02/17

I haven’t spoken to very many MPs before, but I imagine there are few with whom you could launch straight into a conversation about the late-1990s UK garage scene.

“It was pretty underground and centred around the part of London that I grew up in. I got some decks shortly after I went to uni and played out. My music’s my escape, I love it.”

Chuka Umunna is not like very many MPs. A slick ex-solicitor, with a smart use of social media channels — now even including Snapchat — he is perhaps uniquely placed to appeal to the much-mythologised group, ‘young people’.

It’s this appeal, and his presentable and confident spoken style, which continues to generate talk of the possibility of the Streatham MP running for his party’s leadership for a second time. In fact, rumours have barely paused for breath since he backed out from running in the 2015 contest, following press intrusion into his private life.

His style, however, has proven divisive. He’s seen by some as a little too polished, expensively-suited: a prime example of the so-called metropolitan and careerist breed of politician which is apparently being rejected across the world. But when Umunna speaks about his time as a student at university in Manchester, it doesn’t appear that he is following a long-harboured master plan.

“I did actually toy with DJ-ing full-time,” Umunna tells me. He used to run club nights in Manchester and his local area of south London. “It was when dance music was really beginning to take off, and you’ve got big-name DJs who are well-known around the world.”

He took a low view of those he saw involved in student politics, who were more “interested in building a career for themselves in politics once they left university”. He was involved with his university’s Labour club, but politics was something he saw himself doing much later in life.

His ethnicity, he says, played a part in this. The son of a Nigerian immigrant who came to Britain with nothing, Umunna knew he faced challenges in gaining selection. “Until quite recently there were very few people in the House of Commons of my background. I really did not have any expectations of being a member of parliament so soon.”

Racist and misogynistic abuse received online by Diane Abbott, following parliament’s vote last week to trigger Article 50, demonstrates that the challenges faced by ethnic minority MPs have not gone away. With hatred finding new forms of expression on social media, does Umunna think their experience has got worse?

“Yes. I think it has because social media gives people a platform to engage in racism anonymously in a way that they could not in the past.” He adds: “I’m just quite lucky in comparison to the experience of others online. Female parliamentarians receive much worse abuse than male parliamentarians.”

Umunna’s constituency is in Lambeth, which recorded the second-highest remain vote behind Gibraltar, and he describes voting against his constituents to trigger Article 50 as “awful”. But he is as ready to criticise the delusions of his fellow Remain supporters as he is the lies of the Leave campaign.

“I am worried about the divisions,” he says, and “the echo chamber culture which we live in. I was a very strong Remain campaigner, and just as I’m appalled at some of the views of the small minority of people, whose dislike of immigration is in part fuelled by prejudice, I am as appalled by the views of some people who voted Remain who go on my social media channel and accuse people who live in Leave-voting areas of being uneducated, bigoted racists.”

(photos by Nicola Tree/Getty Images)

These divisions are felt nowhere more acutely than in Labour. Two thirds of Labour constituencies voted to leave, while two thirds of Labour voters supported Remain. Many see the split exposed within the party during the Article 50 vote as evidence of the obstacles to winning a 2020 election. But Umunna does not see bridging the gap between metropolitan Lambeth and Leave-supporting Stoke-on-Trent, where a by-election is to take place, as an impossible task.

“It’s possible,” but a Labour win depends on “speak[ing] for the mainstream majority of working people in this country, in addition to those who cannot support themselves.” Fundamentally he sees the people of Britain as able to unite around “things which are important in their life, their community, their love of this country. That is not something that is decided by whether you live in Streatham, Northumberland, or voted Remain or Leave. So these are universal British values, and if people see those values represented in the Labour party, they will vote for it.”

It’s an undoubtedly impassioned response, delivered with such a scripted feel that it almost sounds like the beginnings of an election manifesto. And when I ask him whether the constant rumours about a second leadership bid feel like a burden, expecting a guarded response, I am surprised by his openness about his ambitions for the party. He’s not far from launching into a speech that wouldn’t be out of place at a leadership hustings.

“I don’t believe that there’s a conflict between Labour’s values and us winning elections and getting into office, to give life to our values we need to get into office to make them a reality.” He goes on: “So I’ve never been shy about saying I want to play a big role in the next Labour government. Wanting to get the Labour Party into government to make our socialism real is not a burden, it’s why we go into politics, to change the country.”

He doesn’t think populism on the left and right shows his politics has been rejected. “I don’t think there’s been a rejection of the politics of looking out for working people, be they in Britain or be they in other areas.”

“Some of the problems for the centre-left is that we’ve been too slow to react to some of the challenges which immigration poses and has left a vacuum which the nationalist right and the populist right have stepped into.”

Umunna’s continued confidence in parliamentary politics to bring about change has not been shared by all of his colleagues. MPs Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed recently decided they had a better chance to make change outside of Westminster, choosing jobs at the Victoria and Albert Museum and in the nuclear industry respectively over the fractious division which characterises today’s Labour Party. Has Umunna, I wonder, another ambitious and talented politician, and still just 38, considered leaving parliamentary politics?

“No,” he says, and he appears to criticise his departing colleagues. “I would never drop the baton and give it to someone else, because you go in to politics to change the world.”

He speaks of how his politics was “very much shaped” by his upbringing in Lambeth in the 1980s, “when we saw the harsh ends of Thatcherism, the growth in disparities between rich and poor. I grew up surrounded by that.”

His experience of seeing poverty in his father’s native Nigeria appears to have “deeply effected” his political mindset. He describes seeing “large swathes of the population subsisting on no more than two dollars a day.”

It seems a rebut to his critics, who see him as little more than smart-suited salesman, and delivered with a genuine depth and conviction which may offer hope to those who still wish to see him placed back on the frontline of politics. “It may sound crazy and idealistic, but that’s why I’m doing it. I never went into this for an easy ride and I’m incredibly grateful to my wife and my family for putting up with all the attention but they understand what I’m trying to do here.”

Again, there is energy and urgency back in his voice. “So I’m not going to do this forever, but while I’m doing it I want to make a difference.”