When you erase a nation’s past, you threaten its future

The woke ultras who want to wipe away all symbols of British imperialism don’t speak for families who lived under the Empire

Are we a nation of irredeemably and uniquely evil imperialists? Or is that a gross caricature that distorts our rich and complex history? Britain’s colonial past was thrust into the present this week when the prime minister of Barbados cheekily used the Commonwealth nation’s equivalent of the Queen’s Speech to reveal she planned to sack the island’s head of state and replace her with an elected president. Her Majesty showed no sign of being amused. Dispensing with four centuries of constitutional, cultural and emotional entanglement is not a matter to be taken lightly.

Still, winds of change appear to be blowing strongly across the western world, and even traditionalists are bending in the gale. The Barbadian PM, for instance, actually leads the more conservative of the country’s two main parties. As the assault on the history of colonialism and Empire sets revolutionary hearts beating faster, attempts to rewrite Britain’s past are mounting up. At the start of the summer, the think tank Policy Exchange (of which I’m a member) launched a project to list the steps being taken to move a statue here, and rename a school there. This now threatens to become a tsunami that engulfs classrooms, workplaces, museums and virtually every public square in the land. The battle over symbols is proving as divisive as Brexit ever did — and may go on for even longer.

History matters. Every revolution starts with the destruction of the symbols of the past and often the elimination of those who resist abolishing them. During China’s Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong banished any intellectuals who survived the purges to farms where they could feed their pearls of wisdom to swine rather than students. After the French Revolution, the National Convention in Paris simply decreed that history would start again, declaring 1792 “Year One”. Pol Pot followed suit; 1975 became Year Zero, ushering the massacre of at least a million Cambodians. And in an era of uncertainty, whoever redraws the map of the past wins the right to chart the course to the future.

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