Sunday, February 14, 2021

Conservatives and their contradictions over free speech

Let’s be honest here, Conservatives don’t believe in free speech. They don’t even really believe in freedom of speech within the confines of what might generally be accepted as reasonable, i.e. restrictions on hate speech, or topics that would offend the overwhelming majority. In truth, most Conservatives tend to believe in freedom of speech to say things that they approve of.

They are, unsurprisingly, now attempting to intimidate academic institutions to express only those opinions which meet with their view of British history - for which one should almost certainly read “English history”, given that most teaching of British history tends to revolve around the English conquering by force or via politics the other three parts of the United Kingdom.

And, given that history tended to be written by the winners, there is a tendency to highlight British successes rather than challenge the perceived wisdom. So, for example, your perspective on World War II might differ if you were living in Bedfordshire or Bengal, where more than two million died as a result of what is widely regarded as a man-made famine under British control. You might look upon the Anglo-Zulu War as a great triumph against the odds - although highly disciplined troops, heavily armed, tend to have a significant advantage over tribesman armed with spears - yet not want to emphasise the invention of concentration camps when fighting the Boers twenty or so years later. After all, we’ve established that gathering populations in a confined space and allowing them to die through starvation and disease is a bad thing, right?

And history changes too. Take, for example, the English Civil War, where Conrad Russell was, apart from being an adornment to the Liberal Democrat benches in the Lords, a leader in re-evaluating how it came to pass, looking at source material in new ways. History moves on, as we collect more data, as researchers share their findings in ways not easily matched before the advent of the internet.

The Empire offers a number of significant challenges. Was it a summarily good thing, or are you merely measuring the outcomes in relation to the incredibly low bar that is the Belgian Congo? If the British Empire was such a boon to economic development, why was India’s share of the world economy estimated at 23% before invasion, and just 4% at independence? It might be fairer to say that, if you were a white colony, the Empire wasn’t so bad. If, on the other hand, you were one of Rhodes’s natives to be treated as a child and denied the franchise, it might reasonably be said that the Empire was a brutal oppressor.

Yes, building railways and other infrastructure was a useful inheritance when countries gained their independence, but as none of it was built with their interests at heart - it was built to enable military control and to extract the wealth - that smacks of post-event justification.

So, as a liberal and as someone of Indian descent, I oppose what is, effectively, the imposition of a repressive world view on the rights of academics, and anyone else for that matter, to express a variety of perspectives on events that have taken place, in order to create an idealised perspective on a divided country.

No people are perfect, no nation’s impact on the world around it is uniformly benevolent, and history is meant to inform and educate - we are supposed to learn from our history and the mistakes we make. But then, this Government doesn’t like to be reminded of its failures, and it refuses to learn from its mistakes.

Our job as liberals is to hold the Government of the day to account, to suggest means to improve the state of the nation and its people. That means allowing debate on events past and present, and encouraging diversity of thought, and so we need to shine a light on this Government’s desire to suppress views it doesn’t much like.

Because, if they get away with that, they’ll happily suppress political dissent and opposition by inches, as we see in their restrictions on political campaigning, their attempts to neuter the Electoral Commission and their move to change constituency boundaries based on registered voters rather than population.

History is written by the winners. Perhaps it would be nicer if more of us were able to be winners...


Unknown said...

It has become fashionable to opine that the British invented the concentration camp during the Boer War. Could I suggest that the Americans beat us to with the Andersonville prisoner of war camp during their Civil War ? It is thought about 30% of the 45,000 prisoners died there.

Mark Valladares said...

Fashionable, maybe, but concentration camps are generally acknowledged to be for civilians, rather than combatants. Prisoners didn’t tend to be kept prior to the American Civil War because feeding and securing them was just too difficult unless you could enslave them.

And whilst what went on at Andersonville was horrifying by anyone’s standards, at that stage in the war, the Union blockade was beginning to bite hard and feeding prisoners wasn’t likely to be a high priority.