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‘Hijacking’ history

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'Given that the Second World War was fuelled by the need to disarm oppressive and racist regimes, is it fair that the BNP has hijacked Churchill as its own?' Such was the first question posed to the panellists gathered for the BBC's Question Time transmitted on the 22 October 2009. Because of the furore caused by the presence of Nick Griffin on the panel, I believe that that first question has not, perhaps understandably, attained the same prominence as the other issues discussed in the programme.

In response, the representatives of the three main parties told the audience their reasons for condemning the BNP's usage of Churchill. Their arguments ran more or less on this line: Churchill safeguarded British liberty against fascist regimes on the continent; the BNP does not abide to those British values defended in the past - given the party's inexcusable racist and extreme-right ideology; therefore the BNP could not claim the former prime minister as its own. This second argument was corroborated by the Queen a couple of days later. She also professed her outrage at the BNP for hijacking Churchill, that 'courageous leader in our hour of need'.

However, the dichotomy of the correct and heroic Churchill of the Establishment versus the wrong and racist Churchill of the BNP largely misses a valuable opportunity of understanding history-writing as a whole. The idea that there is a 'pure' and 'true' historical narrative somewhere 'out there' which is subjected to being falsified and/or hijacked by some is a myth. History is written by historians with individual opinions and ideas during a specific time after the events which s/he narrates and discusses. This is not to say, however, that history can be written down by anyone who wishes to, but that historians - and society at large - accept and reject what can or cannot be written about the past in institutional and ethical terms.

Indeed, the very portrayal of the former prime minister in terms of a hero in a nationalistic discourse is fertile ground for the appropriation of history by parties such as the BNP with its outspoken xenophobic and racist political agenda. Griffin's response to his reasons for 'hijacking' Churchill was entirely founded on a factual-biographical usage of history. He argued that the BNP was right for claiming him as its own for 'no other party would have him for what he said in the early days of immigration to this country'. He quoted Churchill as stating that '"they [immigrants] are only coming [here] for our benefit system"' and also claimed 'that in his younger days he [Churchill] was extremely critical of the dangers of fundamentalist Islam which nowadays would be described as Islamophobic'. Indeed, taken at face-value, both narratives can be corroborated by documentary evidence. Griffin might have been thinking of Churchill's comments on immigration during a cabinet meeting on February 3, 1954. It is well documented that the then prime minister stated his concern over the number of immigrants ('coloured people') from the Caribbean who were then settling in the UK ('[a]ttracted by Welfare State') and the 'colour problems' that might ensue from these policies in the eyes of public opinion. Regarding Islam, Churchill wrote in his The River War (pub. 1899):

Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.

Surely the question should not be whether Churchill was racist or Islamophobic, but if those remarks - 55 and 110 years old - are in fact relevant to us in the beginning of the 21st century. The former prime minister was brought up to understand the world according to the scientific beliefs of his time, i.e. in terms of a racialist discourse. Since then, these perspectives of the world and human beings have been absolutely discredited and remarks such as those above should be read with a critical perspective of the period in which they were written and/or uttered in mind. The appropriation of such statements with a presentist frame of mind, as if Churchill were to profess them alongside Griffin during a political broadcast, is not only dishonest and dangerous, but not historically valid at all.

I would argue, however, that the BNP's use of Churchill is illustrative of a broader tendency to appropriate history as a device for gaining credibility in the present. If Churchill is taught and understood to have an almost mythic, transcendental status, then remarks such as those made by Nick Griffin could be understood as if contemporary and relevant to our daily experience. In fact, such pronouncements are based on historical narratives which grossly overlook the specificities of the past. Historians and the teachers of history need to make these important distinctions to prevent history being used as a tool which gives legitimacy to discourses of hatred founded on ahistorical readings of the past.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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