Many of you will know the phrase ‘The victors write history’, some of you may know Marx’s famous line from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”. We live at a period in time in which lies have become the new truth and history itself is being rewritten before our very eyes. The revised version of history, which has been constructed to serve the interests of Britain’s socio-economic orthodoxy, is simultaneously tragic and farcical. Tragic because the historical revisionism that we now find ourselves watching can only end badly. Farcical, because the historical claims made by commentators, politicians and armchair pundits are easily challenged if you make the effort.
Yesterday as I was watching the
impartial coverage of the local election results on the BBC, I noticed how commentators and politicians alike kept referring to the 1980s. Indeed, since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the media can’t help but refer to the Eighties. Peter Kellner of YouGov, for example, reminded John McDonnell that Labour’s losses, in what are traditionally Tory heartlands, was reminiscent (for him and those like him) of the Local and General Elections of 1983.
Naturally, Kellner couldn’t resist summoning up the ghost of the much maligned Michael Foot. But McDonnell snapped back that perhaps 1974 was a better reference point than 1983. Kellner grudgingly conceded but appeared to stick to his original position. So what is this obsession with the 1980s? Well, as someone who lived through that decade, I can tell you that the public memory of that decade is faulty both in terms of history and the wilful mischaracterization of Foot as some radical left-winger. This is a recent historical revision of the 1980s and it must be challenged.
In this previous blog, I pointed out that May’s calling of a snap election was actually more redolent of 1974 and Edward Heath’s “Who Governs Britain?” and not the 1980s. The Tories and, seemingly, the media would rather you didn’t remember what happened in 1974. They would prefer that you remembered the decade’s specially selected highlights: the power cuts, the three day week and the mythical ‘Winter of Discontent’ (coined by The S*n).
So why don’t they want you to know what actually happened in the 1970s? Is it because Heath’s government was pretty inept but also hellbent on smashing the trade unions? Maybe it’s because the Tories and their allies in the media imagine that history only began when Thatcher was elected in May 1979? Are we now living in the Year 38AT (After Thatcher) instead of the (much contested) 2017AD/2017CE?
Many people forget that it was the Heath government, not Wilson or Callaghan, that introduced Value Added Tax and abolished free school milk (overseen by Thatcher). A few weeks ago I had to correct someone when they claimed the three day week took place under Labour. They even had the gall to conflate it with the ‘Winter of Discontent’. Where do historical revisionisms like this come from? Who is responsible for producing these lies? It is possible that the media’s opinion formers play their part with the collusion of politicians – especially Tories and right-wing Labour MPs who join in with their game – in the production of these warped narratives? Of course, it is. You only have to look no further than the likes of Hilary Benn and his license with Spanish Civil War history to see it in action.
Since the 1980s, a cult has grown up around the personality of Thatcher and this cult replaced the earlier cult of Churchill. For these cultists, what Thatcher represented is more important than either her personality or her ‘achievements’. She was either ‘The Iron Lady’, ‘The Saviour of the Nation’. Theresa May might have poured herself into Thatcher’s power suits but it’s a bad fit. Thatcher, for her part, was a Churchill cultist (she also belonged to the Powell cult) and channelled his spirit during the Miners’ Strike and her final days in power. It helped to finish her off.
Adam Curtis’s series The Living Dead examines the way in which politicians will use history to suit their objectives – with disastrous consequences. Below is an episode from the series, titled ‘The Attic’, which looks at Thatcher’s adoption of the Churchillian mantle as a means to appear tough and in control.
History is a contested space in which each of us writes our histories every day. We write about our own lives and our interactions with others when we tell colleagues and acquaintances what we did yesterday or the day before. The word ‘write’ is important here: the French word for story is histoire, which also happens to be the same word for ‘history’. That tells us that history is a narrative and is subject to, and a product of, an individual’s or a group’s ideology. Events on their own don’t make history, they need a backstory to make sense. If you can add some lies, then you have a full blown propagandized narrative that blinds people to the truth about their own pasts.
So what about Michael Foot? Wasn’t he some crazed hard left loon? Well, no he wasn’t. He was considered rather soft left; a ‘safe pair of hands’; the compromise candidate. Sure he was a member of CND and a unilateralist, but they were pretty common in the Labour Party in the days before the Thatcher’s cultural Year Zero (0AT).
So, whatever anyone tells you: this is not 1983, 1987 or even 1974. The year is 2017 and future cannot be divined by poring over past events and summoning up their spirits. If you want your fortune told, there are plenty of seaside mystics and other ‘scryers’ out there who will take your money. But don’t waste my time with your cod second sight baloney.
Marx, K. (nd.) The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Marxist Internet Archive. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/18th-Brumaire.pdf . Accessed 6/5/2017