Making the Tories History
organised by the London Socialist Historians Group
Saturday 26th February 2011, 9.30am - 4.30pm
Institute of Historical Research
Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1
The decision of the neo-liberal ‘Con-Dem’ coalition government to appoint the liberal historian Simon Schama over arch-Tory champion of Western imperial power Niall Ferguson, to advise them on re-designing the national curriculum for history in British schools suggests a space for debate about the nature of history and history teaching in the UK
Schama, now famous as a ‘TV historian’ was associated with History Workshop in the 1980s but subsequently discovered that he disliked the idea of revolution of any sort. More recently he has been associated with New Labour and the Obama administration in the US.
However it is Education Secretary Michael Gove that looks to be calling the shots. The Tories seem to want a return to the kind of ‘traditional history’ taught in schools decades ago, designed primarily to inspire loyalty to the British Empire. This kind of ‘history’ was effectively satirised in W.C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman’s anti-imperialist classic, 1066 and All That, which began by stressing that the only ‘memorable history’ was the “self-sacrificing determination…of the…Great British People…to become Top Nation” and concluded by noting that now “America was thus clearly Top Nation and history came to a .”
Yet the weakness of this new Conservative-led government is epitomised by the fact that the Tories also have a quite ‘memorable history’ of their own as the political party of choice of not only many notorious reactionaries but of the British ruling class as a whole–while there is also a‘memorable history’ of working class resistance to them. The Tories have subsequently long been detested and distrusted by the organised British working class movement but also wider swathes of society.
At the same time there are other sides to Toryism. George Orwell said that when you meet a clever Conservative it is time to count your change and check your wallet. The Tory Party has not survived for two hundred years simply by being vicious; it has shown a remarkable capacity for adaptation. Disraeli is the archetypal Tory thinker, but the Conference will also look at ‘left Tories’ like Harold Macmillan in the 1930s and the way the Tory Party adapted to the post-World War II world (as studied in Nigel Harris’s Competition and the Corporate Society: British Conservatives, the State and Industry, 1945-1964, Methuen, London, 1971 and 1973.). Finally the question of ‘compassionate conservatism’/ Red Toryism will be reviewed. Is it hypocritical froth or does it have a more serious ideological role?
This conference, ‘Making the Tories History’, organised by the London Socialist Historians Group aims to discuss some of the parts of the Tories’ own history as a political party that they would prefer people either forgot or knew nothing at all about. Developing ‘a socialist history of the Tories’ can help act as a weapon in the wider struggle against the Con-Dem cuts and their relentless attacks on working class people, as well as rally the resistance of those concerned in defending history from pro-imperialist propagandists like Michael Gove.
I'll be speaking as part of a panel on the modern Conservative Party from 12.45pm.