On History

My friend Louis recently posted a blog which featured a ‘guest post‘ by his friend Peter. It concerned the death of Margaret Thatcher, and contended that this was a person who at least measured themselves against high ideals.

I do not propose to take issue with the main content of that post. I am not about to argue politics – I come from Northern Ireland, and I have a deep-seated aversion to stepping into that particular world of potential hurts – but Peter says something at the beginning of his remarks that strikes me as foolhardy. What he says is this:

“I struggle to understand the staunch hatred of some in their 20′s who cannot possibly have a recollection of her time of leadership. It also seems clear that even fewer can remember the country as it existed before her time in office.”

The problem here is that Peter, perhaps through nothing more than semantic imprecision (though I suspect not), has conflated the process of ‘recollection’ with the process of ‘understanding’. You do not have to have experienced something at first hand to be aware of its merits or faults. I have never starved but I know that to be in the midst of famine is catastrophic. I have never been subject to the exercise of merciless power but I know that totalitarianism is a brutalist form of government.

The problem goes deeper than this. By making the conflation Peter attacks the foundation of History (as a subject worthy of study) itself. His perspective is that of the Vietnam veteran of countless cliched renditions: “You don’t know, man! You weren’t there!”

Not being there is vital if one hopes to achieve a form of record that is anything other than hopelessly partisan. Not being there confers realistic potential to the aspiration to objectivity. A man who survives a battlefield may write memoirs of exceptional vividness but his appreciation of the battle itself is likely to be so coloured by personal experience that its objective understanding of the complexities of the event is sorely lacking. The prime example of this, at least recently, is Winston Churchill’s ‘History of the Second World War’. “History will be kind to me,” he declared, “because I intend to write it.” He did, and it was.

If Peter does not understand how people who did not directly experience events can form conclusions on them – particularly if those people are, like me, in their twenties – then I suggest he takes a look in his nearest bookshop, and see how many books there are on topics on which no one can possibly have any recollection. And I advise that he consider how many of them grew out of Masters or PhD theses written by people, like me, under thirty.

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About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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2 Responses to On History

  1. Eruntane says:

    I think you and Peter are talking about two different things here. What you describe is a measured, as far as possible objective look at the past, leading to a considered conclusion: “This decision was a good one but that policy was unwise,” etc. I do not think he has found much evidence of this kind of thing going on, nor is it what he is objecting to. On the basis of what we’ve seen and heard in the news over the last few days, I suspect he is taking exception to the vitriolic outbursts against Mrs Thatcher by people who are hardly old enough to remember her time in office, even if they were alive for part of it; the kind of blind and bitter hatred that lead people to celebrate the death of another human being as though she had not been one, and as though she had no family and friends grieving for her whose feelings deserve to be respected. And leaving aside the indecency and inhumanity of it, this behaviour on the part of young people in their 20s is thoroughly irrational, because unlike the Vietnam vets you mention, they weren’t there and they don’t remember how it was. If Mrs Thatcher’s time in power truly was a period of such terrible privation, and if they were old enough to remember living through it, their rancour now might be understandable, if not exactly justified. As it is, they seem to be using her death as a convenient bandwagon to jump on in order to vent their frustrations at the state of the country as it currently is (a legitimate cause for frustration, in my opinion, and one for which Mrs Thatcher does bear some of the responsibility.) In doing so, however, they’re getting completely carried away and demonising a fellow human being in a way that is only ever going to be offensive and unhelpful.

  2. Bruce Gardner says:

    Several things might be taken into account in this discussion.

    First, I agree entirely with Gavin’s point that one does not have to experience something first hand in order to have an opinion about it. (Were that thought to be the case, governments could use that argument to prevent anyone from criticising their nefarious deeds – on the grounds that they had kept them well out of sight!)

    Secondly, some of these young people may well be the offspring of those who suffered under Mrs Thatcher’s monetarist revolution and therefore they have experienced first-hand the effect that it had on their parents and grandparents, and upon their destroyed local communities. One cannot assume that they know nothing.

    Thirdly, while I agree with the point made by Eruntane about the distastefulness of extreme criticism, one cannot appreciate the strength of feeling in critics without realising that, for certain people in communities and industries which never recovered from the changes she brought in, Mrs Thatcher (who is an icon to the home-counties middle classes) is a hate-figure. If one wishes to understand why this is so, one has to go and visit these people in their communities and hear their personal stories. It is not enough to be offended.

    Fourthly – and perhaps most germanely to the issue at present – the death of Mrs Thatcher required some sensible moderation in the behaviour of her supporters. this seemed to be lacking. TV News was almost entirely taken over for a whole day, Parliament was recalled (something that has only happened 26 times since 1945, and then usually in times of national emergency) in order to devote SIX HOURS of speeches to the lady’s memory. (When Churchill died, the tributes took 45 minutes.) As a result of this unprecedented panegyric, the already-predictable anti-Thatcher feeling was ratcheted up in response. It is clear there would have been controversy anyway, as Mrs Thatcher was a deeply-controversial figure, but it might not have been so extreme, had not the emotive praise seemed to ignore Thatcherism’s victims. It is very easy for those who focus on the richest square mile in the country to forget the existence of others.

    Fifthly, we now have a State funeral in all but name. It was never voted on by Parliament but people all over the country know that, despite the Thatchers’ wish to offset some of the costs, a large part of the expense will fall on the nation in a time of austerity when Government, in a way that is uncomfortably reminiscent of Thatcherite ideology, is cutting welfare. A Government tells us that Mrs.Thatcher won £75Bn from Europe so we can justify her funeral, but this is just word-play. If that £75Bn were in the bank, we should not be seeing such cuts. Thus, it is all very unfortunate and appears, to some at least, to be a stunt designed to bolster the Government at a time of political vulnerability and shore up David Cameron’s premiership. To say that it was mishandled is an understatement. As the bitterness of 30 years rises, there is a danger of a politicised funeral finding an equally-political, hostile reaction from those with different past memories of the Iron Lady.

    No doubt arguments can be offered on both sides but the hysterical ‘pro and reactive ‘counter’ lobbies have thrown us into an unprecedented crisis of deja vu division in which only supreme self-restraint may restore the peace. There seems to me to be a danger that the miscalculation of assuming the universal adulation of Mrs Thatcher may seem to offer justification to others to return to the 1980’s, to a broken society and bitter strife. (It seems that Mr Blair sees the same danger of polarisation.) I felt, this week, like phoning up Mrs Thatcher’s supporters to say that sometimes, to keep a victory, one has to remember not to crow about it.

    I was of the view that it would have been better to let it be a family funeral (which I understand is not the way it was ever going to be handled). At the very least, I thought, a low-key approach would be wise before next Wednesday. Unfortunately, perhaps sensing the divided mood and wishing to be loyal to her mother, Carol Thatcher has made a statement referring to herself as “the daughter of the Iron Lady”, a description which is unlikely to reduce tensions. We shall just have to see what transpires. I will pray that the light of God’s Love will soften hearts. As ever in times of difficulty, only the Lord can sort out Man’s folly, errors and anger.

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