So, how hands-off is the Glorious Tory Government™ going to be?

I used to have a tutor (to whom I owe my extensive knowledge of middle Anglo-Saxon cemeteries), who once got himself into a spot of bother as follows:

According to [Dr Maddicott], students at Oxford can get through a degree in history, without knowing anything about Magna Carta or the Glorious Revolution. Mention the Black Death and you will get a blank look. Even the Industrial Revolution seems to have passed some of them by, he says.

“What Oxford historians know when they graduate is now largely a matter of bits and pieces,” said Dr Maddicott, a fellow at Exeter College. “It cannot be assumed that they have a working knowledge of how their own country evolved.”

Thirty years ago the bright young historians coming to Oxford waded through English history from the end of Roman Britain to the mid-20th century. Now it is being suggested the place is filling up with people who might know about witchcraft among the Azande but don’t know their Hanoverians from their late Stuarts.

Irritatingly, this piece from the Oxford Mail, and a brief mention in similar terms in the Independent is all I can find. I say irritatingly because I’m sure I remember reading an interview with him that fleshed out this rather simple-sounding viewpoint a little.

I’m pretty sure I remember him using the term longue durée. His point was not that young blighters today are learning too much  o’ this nasty ethnic stuff and not enough good old Bwitish material doncherknow, although this was clearly the interpretation that suited the Oxford Mail, ever keen to have a pop at Gown.

His point was that students weren’t acquiring any sense of the grand sweep, weren’t being forced to get to grips with the long-term evolution of institutions and cultural norms, how warrior kingship gives way to various flavours of monarchy which gives way to oligarchic nationhood which gives way to, er, when are are we actually getting popular democracy? The fact that British history is the most convenient fund to draw upon for this purpose is largely incidental. What are you going to do, retrain your entire academic corpus in French history? We are where we are, literally and figuratively.

This, at any rate, is how I remember his argument. Perhaps nostalgia is making me kind. But at any rate, one thing is certain, and that is that he had earned the right to hold such a view, on account of, you know, being an Oxford don and all.

Michael Gove, on the other hand, is not an Oxford don. Michael Gove is a tit:

The Shadow Schools Sec did a passable impression of Simon Schama today with a vow to bring back narrative history to the national curriculum.

“There is no better way of building a modern, inclusive, patriotism than by teaching all British citizens to take pride in this country’s historic achievements,” he said.

“Which is why the next Conservative Government will ensure the curriculum teaches the proper narrative of British History – so that every Briton can take pride in this nation.”

Hat tip to Paul Waugh – who asked for more detail, and by heaven did he get it, all the way from:

The people who make up Britain – Celts, Anglo-Saxons [sic]

The Roman Invasion [no, this is still broadly correct]

The Dark Ages [sic]

…through to the enigmatic-sounding “Modern history to the  present”.

Quite apart from being an object lesson in why you should never let non-experts lay out history syllabuses because they don’t have a bloody clue what they’re talking about, this is also an object lesson in why the Tory front bench, at its heart, has no grasp whatsoever of what liberalism really means.

Because yeah, after twelve  years of authoritarian, top-down micro-management from Labour, what we really, really need is some proper authoritarian top-down, micro-management from the Tories! Except this time it’ll be better authoritarian, top-down micro-management! None of these silly Labour goals. It’ll be our silly goals instead! Froth froth!

I hate this. This is exactly what I hate about how Labour operates the education system. Buckets of bullying, nannying, pontificating, interfering, busy-bodying, self-serving, ill-informed crap, poured on the heads of the people who do it for a living. It’s a daily insult, pure and simple – I feel it, and I’m not even a teacher.  I’ll take an argument like that from John Maddicott (and let’s remember he was talking about the Oxford syllabus) but I’m damned if I’ll take its intellectually defective shadow from Michael Gove, or anyone else elected to wield power over me.

I hate his wobbly-lipped “patriotic narrative” stance as much as I hate the current frenetic insistence on teaching World War II for its moral lessons and I really hate that. My poor brother had to “do” the Nazis three times at school, just to make sure he’d got it into his head that They Wur Eevl and he should on no account try Nazism at home. Other regimes that have used the teaching of history for self-styled moral purposes include Mao’s China. And that gets taught as an example of Eevl as well. Oh, stop, stop, the irony.

Gove’s appalling little turn displays exactly the same lack of self-awareness as evinced by other Tories when they accuse (most frequently, but not exclusively) Labour of “social engineering” via government policy.  Oh, and tax breaks for marriage is what? Just a few of the lads having a lark? Nope, looks damnably like social engineering via government policy to me.

These people are all authoritarians, red and blue alike. Make no mistake. It’s been making me increasingly furious of late, because the contradictions come pouring out of one end of the Tory party as fast as they can shovel faux-liberal propaganda out of the other end. Oh, it’s all “liberal” this and “liberal” that while they’re talking about stuff they approve of. But get on to any subject on which they have an Opinion, like marriage, or how to teach history, and suddenly it’s all “Oh, yes, well, obviously when we said we were all in favour of non-interference and individual responsibility, what we really meant was we’re in favour of it after we’ve laid down the inflexible ground rules.

And it’s not like the Liberal Democrat party doesn’t have its own problems with contradictory liberalism (airbrushing, anyone?) but at least, on the score of teaching history or anything else, we can hold our heads up high. Not for the first time, I find myself thinking, thank god for David Laws:

No school should be directly accountable to ministers…The 635 pages of the nationalised curriculum should go in the shredder.

Let’s replace it with something closer to the 21 pages that seem to do the job in places like Sweden.


  1. Laws really said that? I might have to have his babies.

    In History, I seem to only remember learning about the Blitz, and even then all I can recall is that children had gas masks in little cardboard boxes on pieces of string around their necks. It might be my early onset alzheimer’s but I pretty sure that was the entire syllabus when I was at school.

    As for British history pre-1939, I am an autodidact:

    Divorced, Beheaded, Died;
    Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.

    I am sure that is all you ever need to know.

  2. As for British history pre-1939, I am an autodidact:

    Divorced, Beheaded, Died;
    Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.

    I am sure that is all you ever need to know.

    So much fascinating stuff happened then of which King Henry and his wives was just a side-show.

    Taking away people’s sense of history is a way of controlling them, since if all they know is the here and now they can very easily be pushed around.

    One of the most interesting things about history is the way the same vent can be seen completely differently depending on which way you look at it. The English reformation is a good example. Part of the evolution of liberalism, throwing off the yoke of the Catholic Church and establishing freedom of thought and ull English independence from Europe? Hmm, yes, one way of looking at it. The new rich seizing control, taking away the church welfare system and giving the land to themselves, imposing a top-down state directed ideology on what was the rich diversity of English mediaeval culture? An equally valid way of looking at it.

    We don’t need to know how the Enclosure Acts were the final steps in taking away the rights of Englishmen and imposing a boss class on us, forcing people to flee to become proletarians in industrial hell holes, or colonisers abroad? Maybe not, maybe as you say all of that doesn’t matter at all and we can just think of it as funny tales about Henry and his wives.

  3. Well I’ve been enjoying the Tudors on the BBC so much I’m going to have to get that Booker booky book thing about Thomas Cromwell.

    They could have done with casting somebody less attractive as Anne of Cleves, I suppose, but that’s television. Everything else must be true, or if not, better than the boring old truth.

    1. Anne of Cleves wasn’t necessarily unattractive, the problem seems to be that Henry’s taste in women was for petite brunettes, and she was neither.

  4. Dear Auntie Alix,

    I am looking at Mr Cove’s list of IMPORTANT topics in History and I am confused. I wonder if you can help answer a few questions for me:

    Did Great Britain stop interacting with EUROPE after 1066 for some reason? In fact did anything actually HAPPEN in Europe between the Normans and Napoleon?

    Queen Victoria and Great Victorian scientists – did the Great White She-Hephalump DO a lot of science? Did Prince Albert hold her test tubes for her?

    Also, was there not some business to do with an EMPIRE or something? If not, where do all the ELEPHANTS come from?

    Look, I know they’ve got to end up with some sort of examinable subject at the end, but couldn’t we have some sort of broader range of topics so that schools and teachers could better fit their teaching plans to their own specialisms and enthusiasms? Or even – shockingly – what their pupils want to learn?

    Or am I being silly?

  5. Well I would have thought that having had the biggest empire in the world that the British history would be the same as world history? universally accepted and universally taught. LOL’

  6. Alix, I agree with you about the authoritarian and top-down nature of Gove’s approach to history. But Gove’s list doesn’t even work in terms of giving people some of the basics of British history – for instance, apparently we still have the American colonies and the Irish independence struggle never happened. And don’t mention Scotland or Wales.

  7. The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history

    – Freidrich Hegel.

    There is a problem in that at some point this argument becomes ‘do we have a national curriculum or not?’ And the problem with that is that before you can say “falsifiability” someone’s teaching creationism as historical and biological fact.

    1. Yea and nay. If you had a curriculum that simply said any subject could be taught so long as it involves teaching source criticism, alternative viewpoints and evidence handling, I think that would rule out creationism-as-history. You’d have to be extraordinarily devious to critique the Bible as a historical source without falling back on faith at some point.

      When I was at school they were shit-hot on the source-criticism bit, for some reason. I think there must have been a directive. And the loser there was the history of ideas because I came away with a GCSE in the Russian and Chinese revolutions without having much idea of what Communism really was.

      That’s the trouble with any history curriculum – somebody loses, somebody wins.

      1. the loser there was the history of ideas because I came away with a GCSE in the Russian and Chinese revolutions without having much idea of what Communism really was.

        Lucky you. I came away with a GCSE and an A Level in the Nazis, Henry VIII, the nazis, Henry VIII and the nazis. Admittedly at one point we did Weimar Germany (viewed in the light of subsequent events).

    2. Easily sorted by separation of Church and State.

      Great post Alix.

      But while we’re doing quotes, how about:

      “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

      – Karl Marx

      (Well he had to say at least one smart thing).

      Pretty apt for the coming Tory government.

  8. Hmmm, sockpuppet, don’t we already have creationism being taught? National standards doesn’t mean high standards.

    Oddly, RE is one of the few subjects with a locally determined syllabus (by the SACRE). Because it deals with, er, universal truths….

  9. Hmmm, sockpuppet, don’t we already have creationism being taught?

    not as scientific fact. And the whole ID argument has come about precisely because some people want to teach it as that.

    I doubt that RE has a locally determined syllabus because it ‘deals with universal truths’. I mean, physics deals with universal truths too and that doesn’t. I suspect it has more to do with the fact that when they made RE compulsory in the 40s the links between community, school and church were a bit stronger than they are now. And there were fewer mosques, gurdwaras or mandirs otherwise they’d be on the educational board as well (as I assume they are in faith schools).

    1. Wait, the ID argument came about because people want to teach creationism as scientific fact? Can you rewind and explain that one for me? I’m intrigued.

      1. Certainly. I am not a scientist by any means, I might add, but this is not a scientific dispute, it’s a legal one. In the late 80s, a case went to the US Supreme Court concerning Louisiana public schools teaching creationism in science lessons alongside evolution. The ruling rested on their decision that creationism is dogma, not science, and since the US Constitution prevents the government from either advancing or prohibiting a particular religion, it was unconstitutional. However, they did allow that it might be valid to teach a variety of theories in order to enhance debate.

        Shortly after, Intelligent Design started to become a more often-used term, not least thanks to a sustained campaign by the Centre for the Renewal of Science and Culture who, much like the People’s Democratic Republic of China, appreciate the wisdom of getting the tricky bit out of the way in the title. By cunningly refusing to state who they thought had done the designing they got round the promoting religion bit. It’s worth looking at the stated beliefs of people who profess ID though. You’d think there’d be more agnostics.

        There have been some unintended consequences, not least the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which you’ll find referenced in one which you’ll find referenced elsewhere on this blog.

  10. Nice post. There was another example of the authoritarianism with Chris “Nobody tells me anything” Grayling on Newsnight on Tuesday. In two sentences he said (paraphrasing, obviously) “police forces each have their own helicopter, I’m sure we can get rid of some of them” followed by “I want to give Chief constables more power over their budgets so they can police how they like”.
    Not only was the “you can be free as long as it’s our type of free” line, but also the “It’s a cost! It’s a cost! Kill it!” idea without any consideration of what the benefits might be.

  11. Apparently he wrote a book about Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, who was beheaded at the gates of Pontefract Castle. It was here that King Richard II died imprisoned by Bolingbroke who road with the Teutonic Knights. This is now Yvette Cooper’s constituency. Is this a coincidence?

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